“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.