School choice, subsidiarity and the common good

Subsidiarity is an organizing principle rarely discussed outside the Catholic Church and the European Union, and it’s a shame so few academics and advocates of school choice in the United States talk about it. It is a principle that is skeptical about the ability of large bureaucracies to trump smaller units to function for the common good. At this past weekend’s inaugural international school choice conference in Fort Lauderdale, an Italian researcher introduced the concept to describe why a stubborn region in his country could not accept the government’s insistence that public education must be centrally administered. A sympathetic audience nodded in approval, but there was no obvious sign that the conference understood that its mission was just given political order.

If there was, it could have better informed the rhetorical jousting match that happened minutes later between Stanford University political scientist and union scourge Terry Moe and United Federation of Teachers vice president Leo Casey. For Moe, author of Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, the problem of public education is one of structure, organization. “Nobody has a coherent vision of the whole, and no one is organizing schools in the best interest of kids,” he said. Casey countered that Moe favors market-driven and top-down “punitive” reforms that diminish an institution of public education built from the ground up in a model of civil society.

Would that it were so. If we’re to take Casey at his word, then his union would favor the public support of an educational enterprise built in the American tradition of association and social charity with minimal interference from a higher order of government and bureaucracy, the kind of effort facilitated by charter school and school voucher policies. Moe was right to call out the union’s insincerity in promoting transformative reform and its role in maintaining a structure of public education that is largely unresponsive to the unique needs of schoolchildren. But, except for calling for an end to the collective bargaining of work rules among public school teachers, he stopped short of defining how we can reorganize our governance of public education.

If the principles of subsidiarity were more commonly dispatched in our nation’s school reform debates, it could inspire more competing ideologies to find common ground and it could expand our definition of what we consider “public.” We have wrung our hands over what could have stopped the closure and consolidation of 49 Catholic schools in Philadelphia, but we have failed to collectively acknowledge that the urban Catholic school meets the original definition of the “common school” better than many schools that today we call public. The Philadelphia families whose households have been upended by the news have ordered their lives around the social capital they’ve invested in these schools, and the school closings leave fewer stakeholders who share the common goal of reaching out to the city’s most disadvantaged.

Former assistant education secretary Bruno V. Manno once wrote that subsidiarity is not only a principle of justice, but one of empowerment . “The doctrine of subsidiarity values both individual liberty and community,” Manno said. “It is a way of formulating and pursuing true social order. Even though groups have varying interests, subsidiarity implies that common ends are not antithetical to the pursuit of particular interests.”

For states to grasp Moe’s plea to develop “a coherent vision of the whole,” they’ll have to see how traditional schools, parochial schools, charter schools and virtual schools can maximize their unique characteristics and organize around the common goal of a quality education for all. In many ways, that will force us to grasp political concepts foreign to our ears. But in other ways, it simply defines what we’ve been searching for all along.

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