Grade-school classroom
Michael Q. McShane

Like most observers of American society and politics, I am trying to make sense of our current political moment.

Two recent books have helped me in my struggle. One, J.D. Vance’s outstanding Hillbilly Elegy (which was ably discussed in these pages by Robert Pondiscio), directly and vividly describes the injuries, many self-inflicted, that the white working class has suffered in the last half-century “reacting to bad circumstances in the worst way possible.” He puts a deft personal touch on the often underreported story of the economic and social circumstances of a huge swath of American voters. If there is any downside to the book (that is by no means the fault of the author), it is that it leaves the reader with little hope that the situation is going to get much better.

Luckily, a second book, Yuval Levin’s equally outstanding The Fractured Republic, might just offer a way forward for the white working class and everyone else.

Levin convincingly weaves historical and sociological analysis, arguing that in the decades since World War II, our society has become increasingly “decentralized, diffuse, diverse, and dynamic.” This has been both good and bad. The material condition of the vast majority of our fellow citizens has improved, and people of different races, ethnicities, and sexual orientations have seen increasing acceptance and integration into our society. But at the same time, diffusion and dynamism have wreaked havoc on communities like the one where J.D. Vance grew up.

Rather than getting stuck into believing some halcyon past is going to return, Levin argues for policies and politics that are suited to today’s issues. He argues that solutions to social problems can be found “in the intricate structure of our complex social topography and in the institutions and relationships that stand between the isolated individual and the national state.” These “concentric rings” of human existence start with the family, move outward to interpersonal relationships of the school, workplace, church and neighborhood, expand further into the state and region, and finally move to the level of the nation.

If we re-center our search for solutions with subsidiarity—“putting power, authority, and significance as close to the level of the interpersonal community as reasonably possible”—in mind, our diffusion and diversity becomes a strength, not a weakness.

So what does subsidiarity look like in education? Well, it looks a lot like the Cristo Rey Catholic schools.

The first Cristo Rey school was started on Chicago’s near southwest side in 1996 to offer a high-quality high school education to low-income students. To help offset a portion of their tuition, students agree to work one day per week in a job placement organized by the school.  What began as a single school has now grown into a network of 32 schools in 20 states and the District of Columbia educating more than 10,000 students.

In a world where the social fabric is fraying, Cristo Rey weaves it back together. Businesses, schools, churches, families, children, and communities all come together in the mutual pursuit of providing quality education.  As a result, students enjoy a more diverse experience than they would get in a traditional educational setting; co-workers get to meet, mentor, and learn from students who may come from a different background than their own; support for the school is cultivated in the community; and families are able to afford an education that they would otherwise be beyond their reach. Each supports the others.

Subsidiarity also looks like Florida’s Gardiner Scholarship Program.

Patrick Gibbons recently wrote a heartwarming account of Malachi Kuhns, a seven-year-old child born with spina bifida in Ethiopia and orphaned before his third birthday. Malachi was adopted by a family from Florida and uses the state’s Gardiner Scholarship Program to attend Ruskin Christian School in Ruskin, Florida. The Gardiner Scholarship is an education savings account program that places state funding for education into a flexible use spending account that parents can use to purchase educational services for their child. This could be tuition at a private school, tutoring, therapy, or a host of other approved expenditures.

By empowering parents to make decisions for their children and giving them the flexibly to piece those services together from multiple providers, education savings account programs help connect and leverage decentralized providers and unite varying aspects of the community around a common goal.

Unfortunately, much of the education reform movement seems to distrust subsidiarity. One must look no further than the degree to which state and federal agencies want to dictate the types of decisions that parents are allowed to make, or the types of groups that are allowed to participate in educating children. 

Distrust of subsidiarity has a cost. The more the outer concentric circles undermine the inner circles, the more we push individuals and families to see our society as consisting solely of citizen and state, further atomizing and fracturing our communities.

There are no easy answers or ready-made solutions to today’s problems. A subsidiarity-driven social policy means serious debate about what is good and right, which in turn leads to difficult conversations about values and expectations. But if today’s political moment has taught me anything, it is that it is high time that we, as a nation, have these debates and discussions, difficult though they may be. If we don’t, we open the door for demagoguery, identity-politics, and a host of ills we may just lack the resources to withstand.

About the Author

Michael McShane
Senior Fellow of Education Policy

Mike McShane is Senior Fellow of Education Policy for the Show-Me Institute. He is a former high school teacher and earned his PhD in Education Policy at the University of Arkansas. Before coming to the Show-Me Institute, Mike worked at the American Enterprise Institute as a research fellow.