Catholic Social Teaching and the Common Core State Standards

Test grade  educationThe Common Core State Standards are raising tremendous controversy as politicians, educators, and parents analyze their accuracy and effectiveness; however, any analysis of the content of the Common Core State Standards necessarily ignores the main objection to these, or any federal standards, imposed on American schools.  The fact is that any federally imposed standard violates the principle of subsidiarity, which is the heart of the Catholic Church’s social teaching.

The concept of subsidiarity has been taught by the Catholic Church at least since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas, but Pope Pius XI actually coined and defined the term in his encyclical Quadragesimo anno in 1931 when he wrote, “It is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.  So, too, it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and a disturbance of right order, to transfer to the larger and higher collectivity functions which can be performed and provided for by lesser and subordinate bodies.”

In 1991, Pope John Paul II explained subsidiarity in similar terms in his encyclical Centesimus annus: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions.”  The Catechism of the Catholic Church echoes the insights of both popes: “Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative.”

These are strong words.  Mr. President, take heed: it is an “injustice” and “grave evil” for larger bodies to take over functions that can be achieved by lesser bodies.  Should our President follow this piece of infallible wisdom, of course, he would have to undo almost everything he has accomplished since his first election.  Surely, his administration’s latest attempt to assert more control over American education is a prime example of the federal government’s interference in something that should easily fall under the jurisdiction of lesser and subordinate bodies.

After all, since when has the federal government suddenly become an expert on the subject of children’s development?  Moreover, has the federal government, under any administration, exhibited such exemplary knowledge and efficiency that we want to surrender more aspects of our lives to its grasping control?  Does the federal government have a greater understanding of the development of our children than the parents and teachers who care for them every day?  Has this latest administration inspired the sort of trust regarding its virtue, integrity, morality, religion, and culture that we want to allow it to participate in our children’s formation?  True, the quality of American education has fared poorly in recent years, but can anyone seriously entertain the idea that placing it more under the control of federal bureaucracy will effect any improvement?

Most importantly, according to the principle of subsidiarity, cannot the education of our children be accomplished without the intervention of our federal government?

Pope John Paul II said, “The parents have been appointed by God Himself as the first and principal educators of their children . . . their right is completely inalienable.”  The parents, then, should ultimately control their children’s education.  If they seek assistance in this lofty challenge, they can choose to send their children to public or Catholic schools.  They can vote to elect members of the school board, and if they are displeased with their children’s education, they can communicate their dissatisfaction to the teachers, the principal, and even the school board itself.  If enough parents share their concerns, they can organize parent protests.  If they are still dissatisfied, they can remove their children from the school and either transfer them to another school or teach their children at home.  Thus the school’s standards and policies are answerable to the parents of the children involved.  (If public schools received no tax money at all, and parents had to pay for their children to attend, then the quality of education would almost certainly increase as each school strove to outshine its competitors and win student attendance, and each school’s accountability to the parents would be maximized.  But that is another topic for another time.)

On the other hand, if a school is using federal standards, how can the school consider the particular needs of the children under its care?  How can it accommodate the concerns of parents that the standards are too low or too high or in some other way inappropriate?  To change standards mandated by the government would be to lose federal funding.  Thus, the effect of federal standards is that the school is accountable, not to the parents whose children they are teaching, but to the federal government.  And to whom is the federal government accountable?  How can any one parent complain to the federal government that their policy does not address the needs of his or her child?

As American citizens who just celebrated the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, we need to be wary of surrendering any more of our personal independence to a very powerful but remote federal government.  In this, as in all matters, we would do well to consider the timeless wisdom of the Church.  Otherwise, Pope Pius XI warns us, “injustice” and “grave evil” will result.

Agnes M. Penny is the homeschooling mother of nine children and the author of  Your School of Love: A Spiritual Companion for Homeschooling Mothers available at TANbooks.com. She has also written Your Labor of Love, for expectant mothers, and Your Vocation of Love, for all mothers, also available from TANbooks.comShe and her family live in Whitehall, Pennsylvania.

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