Charter For Controversy

Often Touted As A Breakthrough In 'Educational Choice,' Charter Schools Instead Are Raising Church-State Problems Around The Country

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. Studdents, 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 Anthrodposophy.

"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.

Despite ongoing media attention to charter school controversies and attempts by state lawmakers to gain greater oversight of charters and to close failing ones, both Democratic and Republican politicians on the federal level have advocated for greater funding of charter schools all over the country.

The push is taking place despite problems with charters in a number of states, including:

Texas: A charter school in Houston run by a Baptist church has been accused of squandering taxpayer funds. The school, the Prepared Table Charter School, has received a reported $20 million in public funds since 1998. In fall 2002, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) revoked the school's charter for a number of egregious violations of law, including the squandering of millions in tax dollars.

During a three-day hearing in July 2002, TEA heard ample evidence that the charter, run by the Greater Progressive Tabernacle Baptist Church, was using state funds to enrich the church and its pastor, the Rev. Harold Wilcox. TEA also was given evidence that Prepared Table officials exaggerated school attendance records to obtain additional tax dollars.

The U.S. attorney general's office is also investigating Wilcox for alleged mishandling of federal dollars. The school's classes were housed in Great Progressive's sanctuary, and its administrators were also board members of the church. The charter school paid $68,000 per month in rent to the church, and Wilcox and his wife, both officials of the Prepared Table Charter School, drew extravagant salaries. According to the Kingwood Observer, by the fall of 2000 the charter school was receiving nearly $8 million per year from Texas.

Beyond the charter school's misuse of state funds and its unconstitutional mix of religion and education, the academic performance of its students proved dismal. The TEA hearing found that slightly more than one-third of the charter school's 1,000 students passed the state's 2000-01 proficiency exam.

Following the TEA's hearing, The Houston Chronicle urged revocation of the school's charter even if the agency barred Wilcox and other church members from remaining involved with the charter school.

"The mixing of public school money and church finances and, most of all, the poor academic performance of the students should preclude taxpayers from risking another year on all-too-likely failure," observed the Chronicle.

On Aug. 16, the TEA rescinded the charter school's funding.

The Prepared Table Charter School was not the only Texas charter to come under intense scrutiny following the implementation of the 1995 law permitting the creation of charter schools.

Dan Dugan and other parents formed a non-profit group to challenge the use of tax dollars to support religiously based Waldorf charter schools.

Texas' charter school law did not require failing or troubled charters, such as Prepared Table, to return unused or misappropriated state funds. According to a late 2002 Fort Worth Star-Telegram article, troubled charter schools owe the state of Texas anywhere from $5.7 million to millions more.

The Texas legislature is now crafting additions to the charter school law that would provide greater state involvement and oversight of its charter schools. The state attorney general has also sued a number of charters for a slew of alleged wrongdoings and told the Star-Telegram that the charters have "frankly, not been very successful."

As of late 2002, Texas had 185 charter schools and the process for handing out charters has been slowed by the state so it can stanch the loss of money and improve the operations of charter schools.

Also in November 2002, the state's education commissioner closed two of seven Dallas-area charters because of their consistently poor showings on achievement tests. Moreover, the commissioner ordered monitors for 34 other charters because of similar problems.

The TEA, before ordering the closures and monitors, had sanctioned 15 other charters around the state. The sanctions, according to The Dallas Morning News, were intended to address academic, management and financial failings.

The two Dallas-area schools that were closed, the Renaissance Charter School and Heritage Academy, are being investigated for misleading the state with inflated numbers of students to garner more funding. The Star-Telegram reported in late 2002 that the two schools combined received $14 million in tax dollars.

The Texas Freedom Network, a public interest group that counters the tactics of religious groups proposing charter schools or vouchers programs, issued a study of charter schools in 2001, which concluded that Renaissance and Heritage "nepotism" was closely linked to the schools' problems.

Samantha Smoot, executive director of the Network, told the Associated Press that despite the charter school movement's lofty claims of innovation and improved educational outcomes, "reality keeps intruding on their story with the wreckage of one charter school after another coming to light."

Arizona: A New York Times reporter recently asserted that the motto for the Arizona's charter schools is, "Let the free market rule, baby." Some parents with children enrolled in a Gilbert charter called the "Benchmark School" learned the drawbacks to that philosophy the hard way when the school announced it would be closing in a mere two weeks because of what Benchmark officials described as dwindling student enrollment. A founder of Benchmark promised the surprised and angered parents that the school would re-open in the fall as a performing arts charter with a new name.

The founders of the Benchmark charter are also being investigated by the Arizona Justice Department for allegedly frittering away money and forcing students to take over cleaning jobs after all its janitors were fired in 2002.

According to that March 5 Times piece, Arizona state officials have labeled its charter schools as underperforming at twice the rate as its public schools. Despite that sorry detail, Arizona has 468 charter schools, more than any other state in the Union.

Kansas: The teaching methods of a publicly funded Kansas charter school have sparked controversy. The Associated Press reported on March 11 that students at the mid-Kansas Independent Academy read religious texts for their courses. Using tax dollars, the charter school purchased books such as the Children's Bible Handbook and Exploring God's World: Science. Barry W. Lynn, Americans United's executive director, along with other representatives of constitutional rights groups, warned that the charter school is skirting constitutional strictures.

"This is possibly the most blatant example of an unconstitutional use of taxpayer dollars being used to buy religious materials I've seen in decades," Lynn said.

The Kansas Department of Education is considering cutting funding to the charter.

Pennsylvania: Advocates of adequate public school funding are fighting so-called "cyber charters" in the Keystone State. Pennsylvania instituted a charter school law in 1997 and, like Texas, now faces pressure to change the charter law to stop the drain of tax dollars from public schools. The state has also seen a proliferation of charter schools that purport to deliver instruction to students at home through the Internet.

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has filed a lawsuit against the state arguing that cyber charters should not be considered charters within the state's charter school law. Other Pennsylvania public school districts have brought challenges against cyber charters based on a multitude of problems, from improper financial management to inadequate services for special education study.

California: An unannounced visit in early 2002 by California's San Francisco Chronicle to one of 14 charter schools operated by GateWay Charter Academy and housed in a gated community in Fresno called Baladullah exposed a troubling mixture of Islam and secular studies.

The Baladullah site, comprised of about 20 Muslim families, has largely been deserted since the closure of its GateWay charter school. GateWay closed all its charter schools in early 2002 amidst an investigation by the state attorney general into alleged misuse of public funds. Citing an unexplained $1.3 million debt, Fresno's administrator of charter schools issued a 600-page report calling for an end to state support of GateWay charters.

Fresno Unified administrator Marilyn Shepherd's report concluded that GateWay hired unqualified teachers and staffers who had not passed criminal background checks. Students at the GateWay charter at Baladullah told Chronicle reporters that their teachers prayed with them in class and that they studied the tenets of Islam. GateWay officials filed a lawsuit earlier this year against the Unified Fresno School District, arguing that their charter schools were shut down because of a harsh "Islamic smear campaign." Shepherd called GateWay's lawsuit "frivolous" and its claims "ridiculous."

Other states have experienced similar problems. A recent study by researchers at Stanford University and the University of California found that almost half of charter school teachers lack teaching certificates and that low-income minority students are not faring any better at charter schools than the under-funded inner city public schools.

The charter school's classes were held in the sanctuary of Greater Progressive Tabernacle Baptist Church, and the Rev. Harold Wilcox and his wife drew extravagant salaries.

The charter school study, reported in an April 8 New York Times article, also revealed that 55 percent of teachers in charters run by private companies have little or inadequate teacher training and that 45 percent of teachers in charters operated by parents or educators are inexperienced.

Despite these problems, the charter movement continues to gain steam. President Bill Clinton provided nearly $100 million to the states for charter schools throughout his presidency. Thanks in part to that seed money, today 39 states allow for charter schools and more than 2,400 of them exist. President George W. Bush's recent budget seeks $320 million for charter schools, including $100 million for a program to assist charters in building and improving facilities.

The charter school movement has opened secondary education doors to many groups of people some looking to make money, others intending to bring religion or varying philosophies into schools to combat the religiously neutral approach of traditional public schools.

Parents of charter school students have frequently been lured via slick advertising campaigns promising less government oversight and more freedom for parents to influence their children's education. But what those parents have too often found in these schools are improper curricula, ranging from the Waldorf curriculum to ones promoting varying types of Christianity and other religions. That's not all, however. Many other parents have found charter schools to be operating in poor conditions, in pervasively religious settings and staffed with teachers who are not required to have college educations or pass state background checks for criminal records.

Under these circumstances, litigation was inevitable. The lawsuit brought by Snell and Dugan is one of the nation's first. It was lodged in 1998 against a string of California charters that use the "Waldorf" method, named for an Austrian philosopher and industrialist who applied the new approach for use in schools after World War I.

Snell and Dugan were able to assemble an unlikely group of evangelicals and liberals called People for Legal and Nonsectarian Schools (PLANS) to file the suit, arguing before a federal court that the Waldorf method is based on Anthropodsodphy, which they describe as "a cult-like religious sect following the occult teachings of Rudolf Steiner."

PLANS's lawsuit was tossed out of court in 2001. But in Febdruary of this year, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals revived the suit, saying procedural issues had been cured and that the legal challenge could proceed. Snell said in a press statement that the group intends to "put Waldorf schools back in the private sector where they belong, and seal the crack in the wall of separation of church and state."

Although no court has ruled on whether Waldorf charter schools indeed teach students a "cult-like" religion, meddia coverage has exdposed some of the schools' methods.

According to a 1999 Los Angeles Times article, the Waldorf schools do not use computers, textbooks or grades, don't worry about teaching students to read until they reach later years and frequently have their students acting out fairy tales and other types of mythical stories.

Despite the lawsuit and the press coverage of Waldorf teaching techniques, Dugan told Church & State that publicly financed Waldorf charters have continued to proliferate in California as well as other states. According to a recent article from The Sacramento Bee, about a half-dozen publicly funded Waldorf schools are operating in Northern California and at least two dozen nationally.

"Waldorf representatives make strong presentations before public school boards," Dugan said. "But it is PLANS's contention that Waldorf is dishonest about its curricula and lies about it to parents. When pressed about the schools' religious teachings, officials claim Anthroposdodphy is a generic type of spirituality, when in fact it is a cult created by Steiner."

The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions describes Anthroposophy as being based on Steiner's desire to "develop a view of reality based on direct perception of the spirit world."

Supporters of Waldorf, however, counter that criticism surrounding its curricula and teaching methods is based on fear of the unfamiliar. Jean Yeager, administrative director of the Anthroposophical Society in America, told The Boston Globe that Anthroposophy is "a path of spiritual research, not religion."

The proliferation of charters in the face of controversy after controversy is fueled, in part, by the rhetoric of groups that have spent years deriding the public schools as bastions of secularism.

Voucher advocates often promoted charters as an interim step to break the public school "monopoly." Reagan-era U.S. Secretary of Education Bill Bennett took things one step further and formed his own charter school spinoff, K12 Inc. Bennett, editor of The Book of Virtues and a type of self-appointed national scold, touts K12 Inc.'s curriculum as superior to public school curricula partly because it's based on the beliefs of Bennett. The K12 Inc. website states that its curriculum is being used by cyber charter schools in seven states, including one in Pennsylvania.

Parents and government officials residing in the states that have invested the most in the charter school movement are not finding superior education for youth. Too often charter school parents have instead been confronted with schools that prove to be poor performers, run by ill-intentioned or incompetent money-managers or ones that use educationally suspect or unconstitutional curriculums.

"The charter school movement has been undermined by those charters that are bent on teaching religious values," AU's Lynn said. "The right to be independent from the public school system, yet still operate on public funds, is not a license to ignore or subvert constitutional rights of parents and their children. We plan to monitor this situation closely."