Acton Commentary

School Choice and Parental Duty: Returning Subsidiarity to Education


With the upcoming presidential elections, much has been made by both candidates about the importance they place on the education agenda. Political platforms notwithstanding, such national attention offers an excellent opportunity to revisit education policy from a moral perspective. State monopolies on education violate the moral principle of subsidiarity by restricting or eliminating the parental role in education.

If we are to accept the principle of subsidiarity, integral to Christian social teaching, it is clear that the current systems of education in many states need to reemphasize the roles of parents. Subsidiarity teaches that social groupings nearest to a challenge should meet those challenges first, before resorting to larger or more remote groups for help. The classic Christian teaching that parents are first and foremost responsible for the education of their children is a perfect example of how the subsidiarity principle affects a social issue. When a school supplies education for a child, it should be because the parent seeks this aid, by choice, from a school.

Freedom to act on their children’s behalf is necessary if parents are to fulfill their duties. We can identify in Scripture the early duty of parents to educate their children in the Law of God: “and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.” (Deuteronomy 6:7) This biblical duty has further implications for the general education of children. Pope Paul VI further clarifies:

Parents who have the primary and inalienable right and duty to educate their children must enjoy true liberty in their choice of schools. Consequently, the public power, which has the obligation to protect and defend the rights of citizens, must see to it, in its concern for distributive justice, that public subsidies are paid in such a way that parents are truly free to choose according to their conscience the schools they want for their children. ( Gravissimum Educationis, #20, October 28, 1965)

Addressing the moral foundations referred to by Paul VI, as well as the many practical issues surrounding choice, a conference was hosted by Children First CEO America, in Grand Rapids, Michigan on May 17. Speakers from states where school choice experiments have been initiated detailed the positive results. Whether they be vouchers or tax credits, or home, charter, or private schools, all facets were found to further empower parents in the education of their children. Commenting on school choice through vouchers, John Norquist, Mayor of Milwaukee, said:

School choice put vouchers–the power of money–in the hands of parents. Schools wanting that money–whether public or not–have to attract and keep the interest of our children and their parents. Schools have to compete for our children every day, all year. And they will attract money only by convincing parents they will teach the children well, and only by delivering on that promise will the schools be able to prosper.

And thus a moral outcome of a free market is once again illustrated. In a free market of education, parents who are free to choose the best schooling for their children enter into a mutually beneficial exchange with an institution of learning.

The emphasis here needs to be on “mutually beneficial”; sadly, many of the neediest children benefit not at all when trapped in bad government-run schools. Dick DeVos, President of the Amway Corporation and keynote speaker at the Children First CEO America conference, remarked, “People, more specifically, parents, were crying out for help, for deliverance from schools that are failing to educate their children. Parents want their children to have the same dreams and hopes that you and I grew up with!”

Newark, New Jersey, City Councilman Cory Booker added a distinctly Christian note. “We are all children of God. And reflected in God’s image, we share His creativity. We need the freedom to let our children attend schools that can hone that creativity to the best of their abilities.”

Civic leaders as well as leaders in business and education are increasingly coming together on an issue of vital importance. The Christian reflection of Paul VI rings forth with special force and clarity today: there must be “no kind of school monopoly, for this is opposed to the native rights of the human person, to the development and spread of culture, to the peaceful association of citizens and to the pluralism that exists today in ever so many societies.” ( Gravissimum Educationis, #21)