This year, DreamWorks’ “The Prince of Egypt” turns 25. Despite being made in a previous generation, my children love watching it. And by this point, I am fairly certain each of my children knows most, if not all, the lyrics to each song. It’s a work of cinematic art that has likely secured its place as a classic for the next couple of generations.
The Prince of Egypt is an artistic adaptation of the biblical story of Moses and the Israelites’ long, arduous journey out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Although their ideal roadmap from slavery to freedom and flourishing should have only taken the Israelites about two weeks, there were many challenges and lessons that had to be learned along the way, leading to a 40-year journey through the wilderness.
History is a teacher, and I think there’s an instructive lesson in this story that can help offer color to a debate some conservatives are engaging in surrounding school choice. No, the U.S. is not Israel, and, no, the Department of Education is not Egypt. Not even close. But there’s a common thread in historical accounts wherein individuals, groups of people, or entire nations have moved from a state of limited agency to one of full-fledged freedom — whether it’s the Israelites leaving Egypt, the United Kingdom’s Brexit plan (regardless of what you think about the politics of it!), or empowering parents with the agency they need to make well-informed education decisions on behalf of their children.
The modern American public education system
In “The Vanishing American Adult,” a book written by former U.S. Sen. Ben Sasse of Nebraska, the senator examines the historic roots of our modern public education system, challenging the notion that schooling is always, and in all places, synonymous with education. According to Sasse, education is the goal, and schooling is a tool to achieve that goal. Ultimately, the way we educate our children, and the types of schools families use to achieve that goal, are going to look different based on the child and family.
Sasse challenges the sacred cow some have made of modern American schooling, saying, “This [American education] system wasn’t ordained by God. There wasn’t some moment where this form of educational delivery was inscribed on tablets” and delivered to the U.S. Department of Education.”
The reality is, until fairly recently, policymakers and a large part of the public treated government’s monopoly on education as a sort of impenetrable, infallible institution. Yes, we have long had an alloyed education system in the United States, comprised of public, private, and homeschool marketplaces. However, until recently the government has had a stranglehold on over 90% of the schooling marketplace, and they’ve done it by giving preferential treatment to public schools via taxpayer dollars. If this were any other industry, the anti-trust politicians would be crying foul and holding hearings from here to high heaven.
Conservative opposition to school choice
Recently, there have been some voices, including homeschool entrepreneur Robert Bortins of Classical Conversations (a company I have proudly contracted with as a local tutor for in the past), who have made a respectable case for why North Carolinians should be wary of expanding school choice. I share Mr. Bortins’ concerns surrounding government intervention of every kind, including education. I also agree that not every school choice bill working its way through state legislatures is appropriately designed to meet our current problems. Legislators and voters should always approach proposed bills with a critical eye, seeking to poke holes in it to ensure it can stand up to careful analysis in light of the Constitution and rule of law.
But the reality is, government is presently so entrenched in the American education system that the question should not be how to keep education a Promised Land for the few families who are able to homeschool, afford private school, or like their district school, but rather how to get American students out of this metaphorical Egypt; a place where zip code and government bureaucracy determine destiny for far too many.
We have multiple case studies that can give us a sense of how to implement school choice programs, while protecting the integrity and autonomy of private schools and homeschool families. Not only have six states passed universal Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), but we have a federal “school choice” system in the form of Pell Grants and GI Bills that operate as higher-education vouchers.
We have seen students and their families benefit from the freedom of having options in education, no longer being constrained by zip codes and income level. The American school system is finally making strides toward breaking the government monopoly on education.
Yes, we need to be cautious and hawk-eyed, ensuring that expansion of school choice does not increase bureaucratic interference into private education markets. Vigilance is critical to this. But, we also should not miss this long, hard fought moment to help bring millions of American children out of this education desert that so many families are yearning to leave. Scores of American children are finally getting the opportunity to come out of Egypt. Let’s help them.