School choice, subsidiarity and the common good

Adam Emerson

Guest blogger Adam Emerson is editor of the redefinED blog, where this post was first published.

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' capacities 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.

Subsidiarity is a principle that is skeptical about the ability of large bureaucracies to
trump smaller units' capacities to function for the common good.

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 to 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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