Two views of social justice underly many debates in K–12 reform, and the differences between them lead to tensions and conflicts in discussions about policy and practice. One is invoked by progressives and geared toward activism and uniformity. The other is invoked by conservatives and—while also encouraging activism—is different in what it aims to accomplish.
The progressive variety supposes that much of society is flawed or even purposely unjust. Relationships are premised on unfair distributions of power, and our economic order systematically privileges the advantaged and exploits the vulnerable. From those assumptions, progressive reformers often jump to uncompromising proposals to remedy society’s ills and express those proposals in dramatic, militant rhetoric.
Yuval Levin calls this the “rhetoric of cataclysm [that includes a] tendency to catastrophize” and frame social and political problems as “immediate and utterly apocalyptic dangers” rather than challenges addressed through institutions using a deliberative, gradual political processes. (Levin also makes the point that, although the right starts from very different premises on various issues—including the issue of social justice—it too sometimes deploys its own form of cataclysmic rhetoric.)
This approach aims to motivate by posing problems in stark and urgent terms. But it can divide by undermining trust in institutions, traditions, and norms. It can separate individuals into factions—e.g., the haves and the have nots, the privileged and the unprivileged—that are at odds rather than partners in a social enterprise. It can make civility seem like the problem and zealotry as the only fix to a broken system. What follows are aggressive, one-size-fits-all policy “solutions” aiming to resolve problems in total, as quickly as possible, aligning with a uniform and “correct” vision of justice.
Framing problems as a “social justice” issue typically becomes a moral club forcing progressive interventions, usually by faraway government. This is evident in K–12 education over the last couple of decades, as federal and state governments have mandated large-scale, one-size-fits-all “fixes” to a host of problems.
The alternative view of social justice sees it not as a utopian goal nor as something to be imposed by the state, but as a virtue or habit of individual actors, something one does, or works toward, on one’s own, or within one’s “little platoons,” because one believes it is the right thing to do. This one may call the “conservative” version.
In Social Justice Isn’t What You Think It Is, Paul Adams and the late Michael Novak explained the term’s roots in philosophy and Catholic social teaching and how its modern meaning arose in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in response to industrialization and the centralization of dictatorial, government power.
They describe how the inclusion of “social” in the definition of social justice introduces two foundational ideas: the common good and the social practices necessary to achieve the common good. Central to these ideas are forming associations, civic participation, and cooperation.
This approach is helpful when thinking about economic and social affairs, including how we consider schools, in at least two ways. First, it encourages and empowers individuals to join actively with others to form voluntary associations and mediating institutions so that committed citizens can together solve common challenges.
Second, it is directed toward the common good, not only at a national or international level, but also—first and foremost—at the level of neighborhood and community. It directs collective efforts toward shared goals, not private interests, respecting individuals and allowing societies and the institutions on which they rely to thrive.
This view of social justice implies there is no single common good that can be defined by a central power. Although certain principles are sacrosanct—e.g., natural rights, the dignity of individuals, equality—this view respects the individual and group prerogatives acting together. It appreciates that different beliefs, priorities, and approaches will naturally emerge. It presupposes that experimentation by different groups, informed by practical considerations and shaped by deliberation and cooperation, will help us understand and pursue the common good. Social justice is not a single, big, fixed thing, but an amalgam of micro-movements.
In K–12 education, this view seeks to catalyze and elevate parents, groups of families, teams of practitioners, and voluntary, local associations. This would mean, for example, a focus on small, democratically controlled, local districts; independent, self-governing charter schools; networks of charter management organizations; micro schools; and private schools that reflect different approaches to education and differing conceptions of the good life. And it would advocate for policy mechanisms necessary to make these flourish: charter school laws, vouchers, tax credits, education savings accounts, innovative approaches to district schools, etc.
It would also mean skepticism about state or federal attempts to homogenize school options, approaches to instruction, or assessments of what constitutes effective schooling and student success.
It would mean appreciating that complicated, sensitive social issues might not have unitary answers enforced by central authority, and that communities—using local traditions and public deliberation—can reach different but sound, valid conclusions.
It would mean using large financial investments—whether governmental or philanthropic—not merely to scale strategies preferred by “experts,” but to encourage new and different strategies crafted by parents, practitioners, and community leaders.
Two associated notions bolster this approach. One is subsidiarity, a principle that describes a way of preserving the dignity and authority of individuals and groups while ensuring that they take their responsibilities seriously. It protects the rights and powers of smaller groups—families, towns, community groups—from encroachment by larger entities while requiring that groups collaborate and support one another. It decentralizes authority and organizes multiple communities to assist one another in pursuing common goods.
Another principle is solidarity, the expectation that, despite differences, we seek the common good as bearers of a shared humanity. Though power can be decentralized and differences in traditions and priorities are legitimate, solidarity keeps us from splintering into hostile factions by asking that we care for another, especially the most vulnerable. Social justice thus requires that we practice “social charity,” a firmness of purpose based on respect, cooperation, and tolerance.
Because both progressive and conservative approaches to social justice aim at fairness and the protection of individual dignity, especially for the most vulnerable, there is some overlap between them. But the understanding that we’re proposing aligns with the conservative view. It explicitly encourages working with existing groups and creating new ones that aspire to protect the common good. It also recognizes the danger of investing too much authority in distant, powerful bodies. It likewise respects the prudent right of social groups to take different forms and pursue different activities while holding groups responsible for achieving their obligations. Finally, it expects from all civic participation, temperance, and collaboration.
We have been involved in school reform efforts for many years in countless ways. We see many reform issues—e.g., the necessity of helping low-income families find good alternatives to the ineffective schools to which their children are too often assigned—in moral terms. While we appreciate the fervor behind today’s social-justice-minded progressives, we believe the alternative understanding of social justice presented here provides a more fruitful approach than the progressive understanding and helps everyone engage more productively in the day-to-day work of school reform.
This modest approach to social justice might appear a poor fit for our tumultuous times. But it might be precisely what’s needed. When people are frustrated and polarized and political language becomes radioactive, we could use more modesty, trust, and accommodation. Such an approach is not only a framework for school reform, but perhaps a strategy for counteracting the alienation and polarization that pervades our overheated politics.