A word spoken in good season, how good it is!

— Proverbs, the Old Testament

The various forms of government subsidy for parental choice of a child’s school have been pictured by leftist media, almost without exception, as a dangerous, politically conservative device. They stress that our modern hero of choice theory, the late “free market” economist, Milton Friedman, remains the patron saint of the political right; Betsy De Vos, et al., have remained his unshaken votaries.

Friedman deserves their eclat. His name still draws deep-pocket support for “right” minded think tanks, for whom conservative political banners are thus appropriate.

But is this libertarian connection so clear? Suppose that the proverbial visitor from Mars arrives hoping for wisdom to improve his own planet’s schooling. He is given a glimpse of a working voucher plan in our mythical state of Ohiowa. There, every family is provided a tuition grant sufficient to send each of its children to whichever participating school, public or private, that the parent prefers.

How different is this from food stamps? The two seem similar in many respects, including the paper qualification for the beneficiary – shall we say, the “school stamp.”

School choice can seem a social welfare program for those families subsidized. In addition, most such programs include commitments of various sort by participating schools which are meant to assure fair treatment of the family and child.

For example, voucher schools may be asked to set aside a modest portion of their admissions for random selection – even while remaining free to teach the religious creed or ethic of its own or to use some unusual method of instruction.

The Ohiowans would suggest that our Martian visitor observe and compare the school system of neighboring Montucky, a state which still sends the children of its poor to whichever public school draws from their neighborhood. There, our Marsman witnesses the more typical urban American schools that await the poor.

Returning to Ohiowa, he sums up and compares what he has experienced in this planet’s schools. “I guess you are all socialists; your states empower different adults to decide for the child, but I suppose that is still socialism.”

The school folk try to correct him, explaining that government money to subsidize parental choice is free market capitalism at its best, even though it is a creature of government and a free ride for its beneficiaries – food stamps for the mind.

Whatever these civic-minded individuals on both sides believe, it might be helpful to their conversation to find a common and more precise vocabulary to distinguish their competing ideologies. Both “free market capitalism” and its “socialist” opponents seem semantically unprepared for clear conversation about these complex phenomena.

The consequent confusion has its costs.

A major one is the long-term effect of the old system upon both the private and civic image of the self, forged in the mind of the conscripted student. It seems to me even worse than that predicted for Oregon’s complete elimination of private choice in the 1920s; at least that mistake drew no distinction among social classes.

By contract, our message to the poor – child and parent – is their essential and unique unfitness to govern themselves. It is an insult that parent and child alike may continue to accept and to affirm in lifestyle; it becomes their identity.

Of course, the “free market” descriptions of choice by the unions, et al., are assisted by many an untrue indictment. Among these are assertions, rarely true, that the participating private school retains total control of its affairs – secret and public.

The poor family thus hears that the more popular ones will simply not admit people like us. Such fables endure even among our intellectual “liberals” whom I have often heard struggle to justify the old system’s abuse of those same poor whom these same elite claim to champion.

Perhaps we need a new vocabulary to describe more appropriately and precisely the concept of subsidized parental choice. Among available nouns, I would move consideration of the European term “subsidiarity,” invented by the Vatican in 1931 and prominent today in the various international agreements of the E.U.

Simply put, formal government should avoid preempting decisions that could be made as well or better at a level of control nearest, first, the individual affected, then the family, next voluntary associations, local government … and soon to the State.

Applied here to our schools, the State would recognize the low-income parent as the natural and proper locus of legal and practical authority to choose.

According to the doctrine of subsidiarity … social problems should be dealt with at the most immediate (or local) level consistent with their solution.

J.P. Wogaman, Christian Method of Moral Judgment (1976)

“Subsidiarity” is 12 letters and six syllables; if there be a more appropriate and simpler utterance, I have not found it. The word would a least have the advantage of clarity in our debates about school choice.

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