“all you have to do is make private schools illegal”: a rant

I just came across this referenced on Twitter (by @karlfisch, in reply to @chadratliff):

“If you wanna fix schools, that’s easy, all you have to do is make private schools illegal” -Warren Buffett. (The attribution of this idea to Buffett, with slightly different phrasing, is confirmed here.)

I try to tie in every post to libraries but now I’m not, because this just bothers me and I want a place to rant.

My experience in public schools ranged from wildly insufficient to hellish. My town was not awash in private schools. There was a quite good one which (disclosure) I attended, and loved, through 6th grade; that was as far as it went. There were a handful of religious schools serving higher grades which were not known for their academics (indeed they were reputed to be academically weaker than my high school; that could have just been my classmates’ bias, but there are objective reasons to believe it). There were no secular private schools above 6th grade (and the private school I attended went out of business not long after).

Buffett’s quote posits, implicitly, a reason for the problems a public school might have: the absence of parents who value education, and their often-bright kids. My public schools were not lacking in these things. I am from a university town, a university with a med school and a law school in a county seat; my school had piles of professors’ and doctors’ and lawyers’ kids, bright children of parents who valued education. I’m one of them. My parents fought for years — years — starting even before I was in the public school system — for me to have the free, appropriate public education that the law, and my IEP, theoretically entitled me to. They and I fought to have our advances (and we did have a few) benefit others, not just me (and they did). My parents stayed involved in the school system after I graduated.

And I still feel that, with the exception of meeting one of my dearest friends, I basically wasted five years of my life.

There are, let’s be clear here, many reasons that a school might be terrible, just as there are many ways that good schools can be good. Lack of advocate parents is one of them. And maybe it’s a bigger deal in wealthier, more heavily urbanized areas than my hometown. (The link above suggests that Buffett may have meant his comments only in the context of urban education, where I think they’re a bit more salient, albeit still calling for my own personal dystopia.) But I’m from a rural state where many places don’t have the population density to support more than a single high school of any stripe, and does that mean that West Virginia is famed nationwide for the excellence of its education? No. No, it does not.

Banning private schools would not be some magic bullet that would lead to all public schools suddenly having all the resources and community support they would need to be magical. Some public schools would gain nothing of the sort. Others might, but that doesn’t solve problems of vision (sorely lacking in my schools) or culture or leadership or curriculum or teacher quality or staff knowledge or staff buy-in. It might drive incremental, useful changes in those things. It might not. It might create an institution that works very well for the median middle- to upper-middle-class kid, and to hell with anyone whom that one size does not fit. It might produce a world where public schools are slower to innovate and adapt, because they exist in a sclerotic top-down bureaucracy and would lack nimbler competitors able to experiment with new models or to present, by their very existence, a critique of the system.

Solutions posit assumptions about the nature of the problem. I do not believe there is only one problem when any school fails, nor, if it were so, that that problem would always and only be the lack of parent advocates who value education, and their children. Were that the case I would not still want to set five years of memories on fire.

10 thoughts on ““all you have to do is make private schools illegal”: a rant

  1. In the interest of fairness, it is worth noting that some of my classmates had much better experiences in my high school than I did. (I don’t know that anyone flourished in the junior high.) It was a perfectly reasonable high school for some people. But isn’t that the point about school choice in the first place?


  2. Nothing big to say, jusy a whole-hearted second to what you said. The details differ, and my wasted years were a bit more spread out, but five years sounds like a good approximation of the total wasted time.


  3. I’ve seen a bandolier’s worth of magic bullets for “fixing education” but it comes down to this: a significant portion of our population simply does not value a high school education. (Junior high’s primary virtue is in giving context when later reading Lord of the Flies, and in swelling the ranks of Ayn Rand’s readership)

    Note: This is not just the “Ain’t no worth to book-learnin'” folks, who provide a constant level of negative feedback. It is also the “The only point to high school is getting good grades to get into a good college” people who consider high school to be some combination of babysitting and college-entrance checklist. These people not only do not value a good high school education, they often do not know what one looks like. Many (though not all) of the problems with public school education stem from there.

    (As a side note, I have come to believe that high schools only succeed for some students to the extent that they contain cults of personality: either centered on a student or group of students (such as a football team) or on one or more exceptional teachers)


    1. Given that you were in the obvious cult of personality in our high school and I wasn’t, I am happy to entertain your hypothesis ;). (Although I was definitely a lot happier in, say, calc, and that teacher had a bit of one going. But maybe there’s a chicken-and-the-egg thing here, where the way that age group interprets its enjoyment of a situation or group *is* by developing a cult of personality?)


      1. I’m willing to believe that it’s a function of how the age group reacts, sure. Many people seem to have stories of “that one great teacher” even when they come from an environment full of them.

        I was actually in two of the big cults at our school: the history one and the drama one. Having something to look forward to during the day helped tremendously, too. The days that I had a late-period history or drama class were much more bearable than the ones where they were early in the day.


  4. I interpreted Buffett’s comments to refer to a sub-set of school situations. Namely a somewhat urban environment where there are multiple options and competition between schools. The idea being that getting rid of the private schools will lessen the disparity in the system by forcing the mostly wealthy folks who opt out back in.


    1. I get the idea about competition — and I can certainly believe he intended the comments only in the context of urban education — but it still seems like imposing an enormous cost on a lot of students and families out of the underlying assumption that problems in public schools are traceable to only one factor, parent involvement. (Or perhaps two: parent involvement, and the presence of the children of those kind of parents.)

      I think the reasons schools succeed or fail are complex and multifactorial. I think imposing that kind of cost is indefensible. I think it would be indefensible even if Buffett were right, because of the time it would take for the system to reach its new equilibrium, years in which many children would have to suffer.

      In short, I don’t think I misunderstood the point he was making. I just think he’s wrong.


      1. Huh. My interpretation of his comment was not so much that public schools would get better because of better parents + kids who’d be forced to be a part, but because the people who control the government (both the actual legislators and the people who donate all the money to them) would suddenly actually really want to fix the system. Regardless of whether “fixing the system” involves more parental involvement, personal laptops for every student, or mandatory watching of Mythbusters every day at 2 pm.

        I also doubt that Buffett was seriously advocating that as the solution: merely noting that as long as influential parents have an escape hatch for their own kids they are perhaps less invested in fixing the overall system.

        Which doesn’t mean that the idea would work even as a thought experiment: there’s too much disagreement about what makes good education for even a highly motivated government system to actually manage to improve it. More money is the easiest part of the problem… the rest is all fuzzier and harder (eg, “back to basics” or “new math”? phonics vs. whole language, memorization of facts vs. inquiry based learning?).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s