AUTONOMY, ACCOUNTABILTY AND INTENTION: Publicly Funded Charter Schools Using Waldorf Curriculum and Methods by: George Hoffecker

In the spring of 1996 I was hired to be the first on-site principal of Yuba River Charter School (YRCS) in California, the first publicly funded charter school using Waldorf methods in the country. The school, without a name at the time, was simply referred to as “the alternative charter school”. I was fortunate that the teachers at the school were all trained Waldorf teachers, a significant factor in getting the Waldorf charter movement off on a solid footing. As principal, I was heavily influenced by my studies in Rudolf Steiner education and what I had experienced organizationally and as a class teacher for many years at a successful, mature, independent Waldorf school. Collaborative leadership and a threefold governance structure emerged to help us create a vibrant school community that earned the respect of our authorizing district and the “Innovations for Excellence in Education Award for Governance” given by the California Network of Educational Charters (precursor of the California Charter School Association) and the Pacific Research Institute in 2002.


In 1993 many of the same people who founded YRCS were operating a long- standing small independent Waldorf school in Northern California. As populations shifted, the school experienced extreme budget shortfalls do to insufficient enrollment and had to close its doors, a crisis that a number of other independent schools have faced over the years. At about the same time, California passed legislation approving the establishment of publicly funded charter schools. This was partially in response to a populist call in the state for “parent choice” in public education. It was also widely recognized as a political strategy to provide an alternative to the growing “voucher” movement of the late 1980s. The voucher movement was very unpopular with both the California Teachers Association and the California School Board Association and created perhaps one of the few times in their histories when they united around a common cause!


Soon after the Waldorf school referred to above closed, a few parents and teachers from the school got busy, wrote a charter document just a few pages long (typical for the times-now they are a few hundred pages!) and got it authorized the following year in1994 by a local elementary school district. When I became principal, the urgent task was to help the school fully embody its Waldorf curriculum and methods as stated in the charter within the context of the local school district, rapidly evolving charter regulations and applicable the sections of California Education Code. Fortunately our local superintendent and school board saw in us an opportunity which had benefits for both the charter school and the district.


The authorizing district was experiencing “declining enrollment” at the time and saw the charter as a way to “challenge” its traditional schools by providing a “choice” for parents and to capitalize on the new funding stream opened up by charter law. The financial “cut” the district took the first year of the charter’s operations was a whopping 50% of the annual per pupil revenue (PPR or Average daily attendance ADA). The PPR for YRCS was about $5000. Although the district’s percentage was reduced to 9% within 5 years, unlike the traditional schools, the district did not provide YRCS with a site, utilities or supplies. However, with a few of its original Waldorf- trained teachers and their core group of “veteran” Waldorf parents, the YRCS founders gratefully signed the memo of understanding. They opened the school with a kindergarten, a first and second grade and a few specialty subjects, happy to be “alive” as a school again and providing a Waldorf education for their children, even if it meant being a “step-child” of the district The school was free to institute the Waldorf curriculum and developmental model described in the charter document, hire and fire its own teachers, govern itself according to its own “threefold” design with faculty, parent council and charter council working largely through collaborative leadership model. The charter council (similar to a school board or board of trustees and the “final” site-based authority) worked mostly through consensus complying with state “open meeting regulations’ and incorporating “Roberts Rules” to document proceedings. The Waldorf charter school movement had begun.


What are charter schools and why were they established?

The National Center for Educational Statistics, an arm of the U.S. Department of Education in 2012 defines charter schools as follows:

“Charter schools are publicly funded schools that are typically

governed by a group or organization under a legislation contract or

charter with the state or jurisdiction such as county offices of

education, school districts, and in some cases universities. The

charter exempts the school, from selected state or local rules and

regulations. In return for funding and autonomy (author’s italics)

the charter school must meet the accountability standards articulated

           in its charter (author’s italics). A school’s charter is reviewed period-

ically typically every 3 to 5 years by the group or jurisdiction that

granted the charter and can be revoked if guidelines on curriculum

and management are not followed or if state educational standards

are not met.

At their inception, in most states that have charter law, charter schools were intended to be a contract between the state departments of education and parents of the state who want a choice as to where they send their children within the public school system. From the start, parents were joined by teachers and other professionals who together developed their charter petition which included a description of the desired curriculum, rubrics which could measure student learning, and a governance and financial structure along with a plan for implementation.


Over the last 15 years, charter petitioners have also included businesses. For- profit charter management organizations (CMOs) using “economies of scale” rationales have in some cases authorized hundreds of charter schools existing throughout whole regions of the country. And, most recently, some charter “schools” are virtual with “no there, there”. This author agrees with those critics who argue that large CMOs and for-profit corporations moving into public education pose a potential threat to the positive “reform trajectory” charters have enjoyed thus far as they tend to be less local, less personal and less responsive to specific community needs.


Along with offering “choice” for parents within the public schools system, charters were seen by leading educators and policy makers as a way to bring innovation and systemic reform to public education within local districts and to ultimately have a positive effect on national educational policy. Since 1994, many studies have been conducted and have shown that charter schools have, in fact, provided choice for parents and have also given birth to a variety of curricular approaches while at the same time being held accountable to the same student standardized state testing procedures as traditional schools. Waldorf methods charters in particular have enjoyed a high degree of success and perform as well or better than traditional public schools of similar demographics on state standardized tests. (Oberman: 2000)


Although there are many more laws regulating charter schools today than there were in the 1990s, charters could be revoked then as they can now for:

  • Not meeting measurable pupil outcomes
  • Fiscal insolvency
  • Illegal operations (including not having “highly qualified teachers” in the classroom)
  • Not meeting terms of the charter document

They were accountable then as now to:

  • Federal and state government
  • Charter-granting agency(district, county, state board, now also to universities in some states, and charter management organizations or CMOs)
  • Public/community at large
  • Parents and students


Minnesota and California led the way in the charter school movement, passing the first charter school legislation in 1991 and 1992. Now all but 8 states in the U.S. have charter legislation in place serving approximately 2 million students nationwide in nearly 6,500 charter schools (source: National Charter School Resource Center; 2013). It is clear charter schools are here to stay.


As of 2012 there were 6 public schools and 44 public charter schools using Waldorf curriculum and Waldorf teaching methods in the United States and serving nearly 6000 students (source: Alliance for Public Waldorf Education 2013).


How are charter schools funded? :The “stepchild”

Typically charter schools receive less per pupil revenue (PPR- the amount of money spent in one school year on each pupil from federal, state and local funding streams) than traditional schools. In one of the most comprehensive studies done on public charter school funding, comparing PPR in traditional schools and charter schools, the 2010 report from Bell State University, Charter School Funding: Inequity Persists (Batdorff, Maloney, May, Doyle, and Hassel; data FY 2005-06) shows that average PPR for traditional public schools in the 25 states in the study who have the most charter schools was $11,708. For charters within those same states PPR it was $ 9,460 or a $2247 disparity between traditional and charter schools on average in states with charter laws. The reasons for the disparity discussed in the study go beyond the focus of this paper but occur mostly with how “local funding” is generated and allocated (local property tax revenue).


As of 2014, the average yearly per pupil revenue (PPR) for the 44 Waldorf methods charter schools spread throughout the country is approximately $7500, below the national average PPR for charter schools in general. Most of the schools fundraise each year to supplement their budgets to include the many specialty subjects associated with Waldorf Schools, such as handwork, woodwork, music, and movement classes. Special education services are subsidized from state and federal revenues, but only cover a portion of the need, so schools also usually pay a percentage from their general fund (total PPR) to cover special education costs.


Charter schools also frequently assume financial responsibility for their physical settings, although some districts do provide facilities such as in the case of some charters in California. Many of the 44 charter schools also buy services from their authorizing districts such as payroll and accounting services, insurance and technical support paid from their general state allotment per pupil and amounting to an average of 6-7% of the school’s budget. Most charters also pay their authorizers a 1 or 2 % “oversight” fee. Payroll for the charters usually averages about 70% of the schools’ annual budget with most of that allocated to teacher and staff salaries. Based on interviews conducted by the author, monies spent on administration in the Waldorf methods charters are generally below administrative costs for traditional public schools serving similar numbers of students.


Waldorf values and methods alive in public schools


When, in 1994, Yuba River Charter School was authorized as the first charter school using Waldorf methods in the U.S. it joined a few other non-charter public schools also using Waldorf methodology at the time: one in Milwaukee, and two more in California. Until then, Waldorf Education in the U.S. was enjoyed mostly by middle and upper class families in “independent Waldorf Schools” with a tuition-based funding model. Now, twenty years later, public school children across the U.S. are being given the opportunity to experience programs inspired by Waldorf education in “start-up” charter schools with as few as 70 students to large inner- city charters with nearly 500.


Charter developers, with intentions to establish a publicly funded Waldorf-methods school, expect to be able to carry out a child-centered, developmentally appropriate approach that finds its roots in Rudolf Steiner’s vision of how best to educate children. School leaders throughout the country, who have been working to bring to life Waldorf- oriented public school programs, are finding that even with the additional burdens such as state- mandated standards and assessments measuring student academic progress as well as management practices many essential values and practices characteristic of a Waldorf school are discernable, such as:

  • the primacy of the student–teacher relationship
  • the Waldorf arts integrated academic curriculum
  • an array of traditional Waldorf specialty subjects
  • a threefold plus one (the administrator) collaborative governance model
  • a faculty well-rooted in Waldorf education and Rudolf Steiner’s pedagogical indications, including a commitment to cultivating the “inner life”
  • an enthusiastic parent body ready to exceed all expectations in order to make the school succeed


In one case, when a required site visit was conducted by a “skeptical” authorizing district, the district superintendent went away inspired after witnessing: the joyful singing of the children; engaged and enthusiastic teachers; supportive parent volunteers; raised garden beds emerging from concrete parking lots; and “hungry” learners”, even in the upper grades. He said to me, “I always believed a public school could be like this. I just never saw it before!”


It is true that the public charter schools founded on Waldorf Education need to be established solely for secular purposes. Religious practices from various cultures can be studied but they can’t be practiced. Verses and songs used in the lessons must have secular applicability, neither promoting any one religion or spiritual stream nor systematically excluding any. Main lessons, specialty subjects, holidays, assemblies, seasonal celebrations and even Eurythmy (when a Eurythmist can be found!) can all be included in the life of a charter school using Waldorf methods. Because the PPR alone is not adequate to support the rich curriculum associated with a Waldorf program, parent councils, charter councils/boards, parent guilds or even separate 501(c)3 educational foundations raise the extra money needed each year to supplement the general fund, with some schools raising 100-200 thousand dollars each year.


As mentioned above, most charters are not given free facilities from their authorizers. They rent space from the local school district, commercial realtors or from private landowners. One well-established school has secured federal funding that, when matched with private donations, has raised hopes of building their own facility incorporating aspects of “organic functionalism”, Rudolf Steiner’s architectural approach. That will make a statement!


Test –obsessed education: facts and fads

Most educators, as well as parents, (even children for that matter!) in the United States have heard of the “No Child Left Behind” Act. Diane Ravitch, a former Assistant Secretary of Education was the leading architect of the George W. Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind law. She is also one of the few educational leaders in the U.S. to acknowledge publicly that the policies she promoted with all of their “ties that bind” were wrong! A growing number of politicians and educational professionals seek an end to “high stakes testing”. According to an article appearing in the recent issue of “YES” magazine, Ravitch wants to “see an end to high stakes standardized testing and other tools of the accountability era.” Now there is even a great divide growing in Washington D. C. concerning the wisdom of Common Core Standards and the testing materials and methodology affiliated with them that many states are adopting. Educational fads come and go but it is my belief that Waldorf education in all of its manifestations is here to stay!