I’ve played plenty of Scrabble in my life, but I’d never heard the word “subsidiarity” until it was used as a way to explain Local Control Funding Formula. According to Wikipedia, subsidiarity is a principal of decentralization originating in the Catholic Church that, “in its most basic formulation holds that social problems should be dealt with at their most immediate (or local) level consistent with their solution.”
By decentralizing California’s funding system, LCFF gave responsibility to deal with “social problems” to local authorities. However, as I’ve watched the implementation of LCFF, I’ve started to wonder whether local control and subsidiarity are actually the same thing.
My question was reinforced when I listened to the Pope address a joint session of Congress. At one point, he said, “Building a future of freedom requires love of the common good and cooperation in a spirit of subsidiarity and solidarity.”
Moral Imperative Needed
I’m not Catholic or a theologian, but I don’t think you can replace his reference to subsidiarity with local control. In fact, I don’t think it’s possible to directly translate a religious concept into a secular setting without some of the moral elements that give it meaning.
I thought about this when Pope Francis called for compassion for Syrian refugees. He was using his moral authority, like many other religious and civil rights leaders, to send a message to his followers and local leaders about the type of response he expects to a crisis.
There is nothing preventing political leaders from sending similar messages about our education system. Like medicine, education is a sector where ethics and morality are deeply entwined in the work. In my twenties, I was inspired by political leaders, such as Senator Edward Kennedy and Congressman George Miller, to join the school inclusion movement for students with disabilities. In my thirties, I was inspired to teach reading to at-risk students. Both political and educational leaders drove a single message that reading could give kids the tools to succeed academically and thus could transform their lives.
Now, I will grant that during the NCLB era, this imperative often strayed into painful didacticism and moral superiority. But now the pendulum has swung so far the other way that the state-level reaction to the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) focused almost entirely on the rates of improvement than the actual results.
Those test results were sobering. Half our students are below standard in English and two thirds are below standard in math. Far too few are ready for college level work and there are huge achievement gaps. But instead of provoking concern among our political leadership, deep discussions on the “why” and calls to action, there’s been silence. Why wouldn’t our political leaders label this a crisis and threat to our state’s future? Given the stakes, wouldn’t it make sense to establish vigorous state-level targets for improving academic achievement and post-secondary success, knowing that local leaders pay attention and direct their investments accordingly?
No ‘Thou Shalt Nots’
This brings me to the second difference between the religious and secular applications of a concept. Many religions have commandments, a basic set of rules that identify right and wrong. There are no “thou shalt nots” for LCFF. Districts say they are following the rules as they interpret them. Advocates for families and youth call them out for violating the rules as they define them. Everyone gets confused and no one is satisfied. Most problematically, in the absence of commandments, superintendents and board members who try to apply a moral imperative—for example, spending money on student supports instead of using it all for salary increases—are left hanging, with a choice between political expediency or martyrdom. Having a few clear commandments on the appropriate use of supplemental and concentration grants, especially in areas such as salaries, pensions and benefits would clear up confusion and provide a basis for financial transparency on how these funds are spent.
Worried About Future
Without any moral imperative and a clear set of rules, I’m worried about the future of LCFF. We live in an increasingly racialized environment with high levels of distrust of government. How will LCFF survive if outcomes for students of color and English Learners didn’t improve and people find out that the money didn’t provide critical academic and counseling supports? View that result through a racial lens and imagine the impact.
California’s old system of funding education was irrational and inequitable. LCFF is a monumental change for the better. It can and should be an enduring part of the current administration’s legacy. While there have been numerous reports and recommendations on how to fix it, I’m increasingly of the opinion that the fix isn’t just mechanical – changing the LCAP or refining the accountability rubrics. It’s inspirational and foundational. Our elected leaders should articulate an inspiring vision for student success. Their vision should ensure that subsidiarity means more than just local control. In the end, the legacy of LCFF will not be measured and determined by the way it changed local decision-making but by its impact on student’s lives.