Budget & Finance Opinion

Subsidiarity: California’s Messy Politics of Local Control

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — March 24, 2014 2 min read
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To understand what I’ve called the California’s exceptionalism, you need to grapple with the fuzzy concept of subsidiarity. In Sacramento, it has been taken to mean, “the locals know best, so don’t mess with them.” But it’s a bit more complicated. Gov. Jerry Brown extracted the term from Catholic social doctrine and his own Jesuit training and inserted it into his 2013 state-of-the-state speech.

This year, as you consider new education laws, I ask you to consider the principle of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks, which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level. In other words, higher or more remote levels of government, like the state, should render assistance to local school districts, but always respect their primary jurisdiction and the dignity and freedom of teachers and students. Subsidiarity is offended when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught and how it is to be measured. I would prefer to trust our teachers who are in the classroom each day, doing the real work--lighting fires in young minds.

Then, Brown described plans for a Local Control Funding Formula, which has since become law, that drastically reduces the number of categorically funded programs and increases local finance discretion. “There is no way the state can micromanage teaching and learning in all the schools from El Centro to Eureka and we shouldn’t even try,” he said in his 2014 message.

Problem is, subsidiarity is a messy work in progress.

While it is easy to get people to agree that decisions should be made close to the classroom, it’s much harder to get advocates to let go of pet projects or to believe that local districts will act to advance the interests of the most vulnerable students for whom the new funding formula provides extra funds. The open question is whether school districts will siphon off the extra money and use it for teacher raises, health-care costs, or pensions.

Children Now, Public Advocates, Education Trust-West, and other advocacy groups have argued for tighter regulations that ensure that the extra funds for low-income students, foster youth, and English language learners are directed toward them rather than the general budget. A fourth of the legislature has already weighed in support, via a letter to State Board of Education President Michael Kirst. And this is before any school district has adopted the required accountability plan.

At the same time, state education officials, speaking unofficially, question whether all school districts have the capacity they need: “Rather than saying that all decisions should be made at the bottom, we ought to be saying that they should be solved where they can best be solved.”

And Local Control Funding threatens the legislator’s instinct to legislate. In the state’s term-limited assembly and senate, a member gains recognition and repays supporters by carrying bills they propose for ends they support.

The state’s initiative system adds more uncertainty. Designed a century ago to allow “the people” to check the power of state government, initiatives have increasingly been used by well-healed interest groups, both on the left and the right. There is no reason to believe that this behavior will abate.

As the skirmishes continue in Sacramento, local district administrators--long accustomed to state budget shortfalls and regulatory quirks--are cynical about whether promised flexibility will appear at all. Their sarcasm about the prospects for meaningful change threatens the prospects that they will use fiscal flexibility well, even if they get it.

None of this suggests that Local Control Funding is a folly: far from it. The system it replaced was inefficient and an impediment to effective schooling. But the political coalition to initiate it was easier to create than it will be to hold together.

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