Waldorf Schools, Charter Schools? How are we alike and how do we differ?

What is a Waldorf School, and what is a Charter School? Last September marked 90 years since the first Waldorf School opened its doors in Stuttgart Germany, and an important change came to the world’s educational landscape. Since that time, more than 900 Waldorf schools and 1,600 Waldorf early childhood programs have been founded on five continents. Each has its own spirit, responding to its location, the children and parents involved, and the teachers who guide it. In Eugene, we will celebrate our 30th year serving the community this fall; a good time to examine what a Waldorf school is, and why we work to keep it that way. Occasionally we get questions about what exactly a Waldorf school is, and also about the relationship between Waldorf schools and charter schools that use Waldorf methods. Rudolf Steiner, a scientist, philosopher and artist active at the turn of the last century, worked to promote cultural renewal. Just as a healthy human being thinks, feels and does tasks out of freedom, our society has these three parts as well. Steiner proposed a three fold way of looking at the cultural, economic and legal realms as a way to address imbalances in society. These imbalances manifested then in World Wars, economic disparity, a growing industrialism, and cultural misunderstanding, and continue to be seen today. The three realms can come into balance and be healing to our world when they are connected with three guiding principals: Freedom (in the cultural realm, we are all free to express our selves and work in artistic ways), Equality (in the legal realm, each of us are equal), and Fraternity (in the economic realm we have a responsibility to care for and support one another.) In this model, schools are creative and cultural institutions, and must be free from pressures from the other two realms. The work of schools is to create free human beings. Being a good citizen and a skilled worker are important, of course, but those concerns should not have precedence over the individual’s own spirit. Many teaching methods can support children in building self-esteem, critical thinking, and personal empowerment. However, these qualities must also come with a sense reverence for the world, of responsibility for one another, and of capability to act directly to affect positive change in the world. Waldorf education is uniquely capable in this regard, especially in its spirit and in the methods that have been born from that spirit. However, it bears stating that a school using Waldorf methods without this spirit of freedom and love is not a Waldorf school in the whole sense and purpose of Waldorf education. Waldorf methods, which have been successful in many different venues, were developed through extensive research by individual teachers and groups working together from Steiner’s indications over the last 90 years. This ongoing work is based on an understanding of child development that considers children’s growth and development physically, emotionally, intellectually and as a individual, unique spiritual being. If any of those aspects are neglected, one does not get a complete and accurate picture of who the child is in a living and evolving way. Our hope is that charter schools will continue to show that there are alternatives to the currently-dominant, mechanistic mode of public education. For many parents, Waldorf education is the best alternative, one that is currently only available in its full form at an independent Waldorf school. - Marina Taylor, with the College of Teachers