MMR vaccine
Preparing an MMR vaccine that prevents measles. Defense Department photo

Charter and independent schools have been in the news lately, and not for happy “back-to-school” reasons. Take for instance recent coverage of the Waldorf or Steiner system and its offshoots. At least 50 and probably many more schools in California have a Waldorf-style curriculum, rich in the arts, heavy on experiential learning, and light on standardized testing. Rather than focusing on the proven benefits of this alternative pre-K-12 approach, however, the resurgence of measles has led to article after article perpetuating the stereotype of alternative school parents as ignorant, elitist, vaccine-refusing loonies.

Waldorf-influenced and other alternative schools (including Montessori-style and Christian schools) do have lower vaccination rates than mainstream public schools. Diana Lambert found that 43% of our charter schools and 32% of our independent schools have failed to meet the state’s goal of having 95% of kindergartners fully vaccinated; in public schools the failure rate is 22%. Further, 47 of the 63 California schools with rates lower than 50% were charters; 10 more were independent.

However, the ignorance stereotype is wrong. Worse, those who promote it endanger public health.

Mudslinging that targets particular schools only reinforces the notion that there are two sides to the vaccine question. And a growing body of research shows that the more we force people to take sides, the harder it is to discuss vaccination, let alone to build common cause and work together for the public good.

Authoritarian fact-flinging and vaccination mandates can cause vaccine-selective parents to dig their heels in further. What we need instead is civil discourse.

As a medical anthropologist, I have studied vaccine selectivity. My findings confirm that the more embedded we are within a given community, and the more we identify with that group, the less likely we are to disagree with their norms. Why? That’s easy: we can’t risk the loss of friends and relations.

Even full vaccinators conform. In my research, most fully-vaccinating parents who gave any reason for choosing to vaccinate beyond “doctor’s orders” said they were following their parents’ and society’s lead: “It’s a cultural norm,” one mom told me. Very little vaccine-specific self-education was undertaken by fully-vaccinating parents, who knew less about immunization than selective vaccinators. Full vaccinators gave notably fewer correct answers regarding herd immunity, for instance.

It’s important to note that a third subset of participants, the total refusers, knew the least, though there were very few of them. Despite that fact, in the public’s imagination all who do not fully vaccinate are stereotyped as extremists and caricatured as tinfoil-hat types. That’s a big problem. Casting alternative school parents as the enemy does more harm than good.

EJ Sobo

First, name-calling is one of the things that got us into this mess, making vaccination so hard to talk about. Often, it even pushes people to double down on their skepticism.

Second, publicly available data suggest that many if not the majority of students at Waldorf and other alternative schools are fully vaccinated. My own data showed that even children with exemptions rarely were completely vaccination-free.

Third, even charter and private schools must adhere to local, state, and federal laws regarding immunization. They may even be more compliant than most schools, for fear of scrutiny. Regardless, Waldorf schools for one do not tell parents whether to vaccinate: they don’t consider it their business. Indeed, a Waldorf parent in my early research complained that her school did not let parents know that exemptions were an option. In the wake of the measles epidemic many Waldorf schools have issued anti-anti-vaccination statements. The European Council for Steiner Waldorf Education did the same in 2001.

Rather than vilify alternative schools, we need to create conditions under which people holding differing positions can talk to each other. To that end, let’s air and share the facts.

Further, brought into the light, knowledge that alternative schools themselves do not promote non-vaccination and that many if not most parents whose children are in such schools vaccinate may lead to more open, respectful, bridge-building discussions of vaccination among alternative school parents themselves—discussions unstunted by the erroneous assumption that non-vaccination is the norm at their school—discussions that leave space for abstention from vaccination due to legitimate health concerns while enabling a productive flow of factual information. As sociologist Jaron Harambam has noted, a democratic approach to science is much more likely to result in ‘truth’ than one that relies only on the institutionally narrowed ideas of ‘experts.’

All that aside, the vaccination debate is not one into which we should drag any school in conformity with public health laws. As teachers and students settle back into the classroom this month, we need to let schools, including charter and independent alternatives, get back to the work of education.

Elisa (EJ) Sobo is professor and chair of the Department of Anthropology at San Diego State University. A past president of the Society for Medical Anthropology, Sobo has published numerous peer-reviewed journal articles and books, including a forthcoming second edition of Dynamics of Human Biocultural Diversity: A Unified Approach (2019).