Charter for Controversy: Often Touted as a Breakthrough in 'Educational Choice,' Charter Schools Instead Are Raising Church-State Problems around the Country

Article excerpt

Debra Snell thought she had found the perfect school to challenge and prepare her young son for the future.

A Waldorf charter school promised an innovative approach to learning. Students, Snell was told, would paint, reenact plays and fairy tales and rely less on computers and rigid timetables for learning how to read.

Snell was impressed, and she encouraged her local school district in California to open a publicly funded Waldorf charter school in the district, where she and many other parents would enroll their children.

It did not take long for Snell to realize that something was wrong. The curriculum seemed limited, and her son wasn't learning to read. Snell started investigating Waldorf schools and was shocked by what she found out: Waldorf education is based on a little-known, early 19th-century religion called Anthroposophy.

"I was duped by the Waldorf people," Snell told Church & State. "They have a wonderful sales pitch. They call their system a developmentally appropriate art-based school where the children excel. That sounds wonderful, and the schools are cheap to run. They don't use libraries, textbooks or computers. They are very economical and that looks attractive to public school districts tight on money."

In 1996, Snell yanked her fifth-grade son out of a Waldorf school close to Sacramento. She formed a non-profit group with Dan Dugan, another parent who had also removed his son from a Waldorf school after a year and half, and they decided to challenge in federal court the use of tax dollars to support Waldorf schools. Snell was not particularly happy that at age 10 her son was still not able to read and increasingly concerned about the religious nature of the Waldorf system. Dugan was also taken aback by the school's use of religion and its refusal to teach evolution.

Snell once helped sell the Twin Ridges Elementary School District on the Waldorf charter, but now she's battling in court to stop the flow of tax dollars to the Waldorf charters.

"I argue now before school boards that are considering a Waldorf charter that the system is based on the occult with a very limited curriculum," she said. "I stress to parents and school officials that they should not underestimate the dangers of teachers who are operating under a rigid religious system. I made a mistake of encouraging the Twin Ridges school district to accept the Waldorf charter. If you make a mistake, you fix it the best you can. I'm very committed to this challenge and realize the wheels of justice are slow."

Snell and Dugan are not alone in their frustration. Across the country, parents are learning that charter schools, once promoted as an educational cure-all, are not all they are cracked up to be. Some schools are lightly staffed and inefficiently run. Others appear to be promoting religion, in possible violation of the First Amendment.

Charter schools, entities run by for-profit companies or small groups of people with ideologically driven goals, were supposed to provide America with educational alternatives that would use innovative ideas to challenge youngsters. Proponents claimed charter schools would offer smaller class sizes and more specialized study than public schools.

Instead, almost a decade after the charter school movement took off, a number of state lawmakers are coming under increasing pressure from concerned parents and citizens to address the woeful lack of accountability that has inherently been a part of charter school operations.

Like Snell and Dugan in California, charter school parents in a number of states, such as Arizona, Colorado, Texas, Missouri, Pennsylvania and New York, have in many situations found their experiences with the schools to be disastrous. Some parents have had to confront curricula that turn out to be pervasively religious, and others have been caught off guard by abrupt closings of financially drained charters, leaving them desperately scrambling to find other schools to enroll their children. …