After 14 years and more than half a million dollars in legal fees, Sacramento City Unified School District appears to have cleared its final hurdle in its fight to offer Waldorf-inspired instruction in its public schools.
The nonprofit group People for Legal and Non-Sectarian Schools, or PLANS Inc. sued the district in 1998, alleging that Waldorf schools teach the religion anthroposophy and thus should be barred from public funding.
Anthroposophy is a philosophy of Waldorf method founder Rudolf Steiner that supporters say is meant to encourage personal thought and self-reflection.
"The PLANS case started with: Is anthroposophy a religion?" said Allegra Alessandri, a longtime Waldorf educator who now teaches at a Waldorf- inspired high school in Sacramento City Unified. "If it is a religion, then we have to determine whether it's being taught in Waldorf schools. If anthroposophy is determined not to be a religion, then it doesn't matter. That was the source of the 14 years in and out of appeals."
Sacramento City Unified spent nearly $590,000 to fight the lawsuit since 1998, district officials said. Sacramento City Unified spokesman Gabe Ross said the lengthy fight was important.
"Parents shouldn't have to go to private schools to have a full array of educational opportunities," he said.
The case has been in legal wrangling since PLANS first was deemed to have the taxpayer standing to sue in 1999. Over the years, the case has been tossed out and reinstated, has had two one-day bench trials and has made three appearances to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Last week, the 9th Circuit issued an unpublished decision to uphold a previous federal ruling in favor of Sacramento City Unified.
That decision appears to have ended the case.
"They can request rehearing or reconsideration from the 9th Circuit," said Michelle Cannon, an attorney who worked on the case for Sacramento City Unified. "There is virtually no chance of that being granted. They can petition to the Supreme Court, but this case doesn't meet those requirements. It's really over at this point."
Sacramento City Unified has two Waldorf-inspired schools and is considering a third.
Alice Birney Waldorf- Inspired school, a kindergarten-through-eighth grade school established in 1996, has 486 students and a waiting list.
The school was previously at the John Morse campus.
Four years ago, the district replaced a failing small school with George Washington Carver School of Arts and Sciences, a Waldorf-inspired high school.
A group looking to address enrollment declines at A.M. Winn Elementary is considering changing the Rancho Cordova campus to a K-8 Waldorf-inspired school.
Waldorf educators say Waldorf is a holistic approach that focuses on a child's development and has art infused into the curriculum.
"This educational approach is about human development and human growth," said Alessandri, the principal at George Washington Carver. "It's not just learning facts and information that will be tested at the end of the year. We say we teach children, we don't teach standards. It's about the whole child."
Earlier last week, George Washington Carver, which is in Rancho Cordova, graduated its first class of students who had been at the school all four years. The Waldorf- inspired school replaced America's Choice High School, a failing school where the dropout rate was 60.5 percent more than twice the state average.
In the past two years, the school went from 198 students to 288 students this year. Alessandri said the ideal size of the school is 400 students.
"We are growing slowly and surely," she said. "We transformed a violent, unsafe school culture into a thriving, nurturing culture."
Alessandri closely followed the legal challenge to public Waldorf-inspired instruction and said she sees something positive that came from the litigation.
"It forced us to be clear about what we are doing and strengthen our own position," she said. "In 14 years, Waldorf has grown stronger."