Subsidiarity Must Become a Reality in Education

Originating in the Catholic Church, subsidiarity is an organizing principle that stipulates “matters ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest or least centralized competent authority.” And our times are most definitely screaming for this simple but powerful concept to be applied to schooling.

A perfect example is in California, where Governor Gavin Newsom, in conjunction with the California Teachers Association, has decided to halt in-person schooling for over 2.5 million kids and 250,000 educators all over the state. For many parents and teachers, that was a welcomed decision. But what about parents and teachers who want to return to a traditional school setting without navigating through an onerous state-directed waiver mechanism? There is nothing they can do; they are powerless.

Why not leave the decision up to an individual school—its parents, teachers, and administration? Perhaps parents who are afraid to send their kids to school can be taught online by teachers who fear going into a school building. But parents and teachers who favor in-person education should be allowed to do so. Everyone gets their way with this set-up. Each family and teacher should have the flexibility to make a decision that affects them. There is no need for a gubernatorial diktat or even majority rule in this matter.

Another hot-button issue of the day is removing police from school campuses. In Los Angeles, home to about 30,000 teachers and 600,000 students, the teachers union decided in June that the entire district should be divested of funding for campus cops. The school board disagreed, but did cut police funding by 35 percent. The question becomes, why should a board of seven working with union elites get to make decisions that could affect over a half-million children and their families?

Wouldn’t it be better to let individual schools decide how best to spend their state-allotted money? A school in tony Bel-Air may not need any police presence, but in the tougher parts of Los Angeles, a cop is often a valued member of the education community. Maybe a school doesn’t think it needs a guidance counselor, while another school might decide to have three. In the latter case, the school may have to make do with fewer teachers, but that choice should be theirs.

Which brings us to school boards. While I have no problem with the principle, the big school boards—like the one in L.A.—must go. They wield way too much power over way too many people. Subsidiarity dictates that each school should have its own board, or in a town with just a few schools, a board encompassing all of them would be acceptable. Additionally, it would be advisable for school boards to seat at least one parent of a child who goes to a school in that district.

Subsidiarity could also make serious inroads into one-size-fits-all curricula. For example, state law provides that “instruction or materials that discuss gender, sexual orientation, or family life and do not discuss human reproductive organs and their functions” is not subject to parental notice and opt-out laws, according to The California Safe School Coalition. Why must a school be forced to follow the dictum that if a boy in kindergarten identifies as a girl, he should be supported, and not sent to a counselor?

Additionally, since 1997, the state permits girls to be excused from school to get an abortion without any parental notification whatsoever. Maybe some big-city progressives think this is a swell idea, but it just doesn’t play well at all in smaller conservative burgs like Bakersfield.

With subsidiarity, public school choice is clearly an important element. If parents don’t like what the government-run school down the street is doing, they should be able to shop for a nearby public school that represents their educational and moral values. As such, ZIP-code mandated education must be done away with. (A system of universal school choice—vouchers, ESAs, tax-credit scholarships, etc.—is the best scenario, but that is an issue for another day.)

When parents send their kids to college, they take various factors into account—academics, quality of professors, regnant political philosophy (if any)—and then make a decision. They do not have to send their kid to a college in their zip-code. We need to employ the same regimen for K-12. Oh sure, some kids may have to take a bus to a school a few miles away, but that is a small price to pay for getting an education that’s in line with parental values.

Subsidiarity needs to become a reality in education, and now is as good a time as any to implement it. One-size-fits-all education must go. Parents must be given more power to determine the type of schooling their child gets. And the sooner the better.

This article originally appeared at the California Policy Center.

About Larry Sand

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network—a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Photo: Herman Vasyliev/Getty Images

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