Why not ban private schools?

Super-investor Warren Buffett has received a lot of ink lately for his assertion that he and other rich people should pay taxes at as high a rate as ordinary working folks. But maybe you haven’t heard about another Buffett proposal, one that is equally provocative: Ban private schools.

It’s apparently not a new idea for Buffett, but it got renewed notice in January with a Time magazine cover story. “He’s only half joking when he says he’d like to see private schools banned so that rich families would be forced to invest in the public K-12 system,” wrote Rana Foroohar.

Jason Kamras, chief of human capital with the District of Columbia Public Schools, endorsed and elaborated on the idea in a recent Q&A with Hechinger Report. What’s required, he said, is eliminating not only private schools but any form of school choice: No charter schools, magnet schools or home-schooling. Everyone’s children would attend public schools, with assignments made by lottery.

As a result, Kamras suggested, engaged and empowered parents, instead of trying to find the best school for their own child, would devote their energy to making sure their kid’s school is the best it can be. “If these changes were put into place, how fast would it take to turn things around?” he said. “Five minutes? Ten?”

Michelle Rhee, the former Washington, D.C., schools chancellor, supported the idea in a 2010 essay, attributing it to Buffett. She later made an apparent about-face, becoming an aggressive champion of parental choice, even advocating publicly funded vouchers for private schools.

Pasi Sahlberg, the author of Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?, says Finland doesn’t allow private education – and that’s one of the secrets of its success in combining excellence with equity.

Of course, private schools won’t be outlawed in America, which has a long history of religious education – and where the idea that successful people can do whatever they want with their money is almost a religion in itself. The Supreme Court would no doubt find a right to private schooling in the Constitution.

But the value of the “thought experiment,” as Kamras calls it, is that it lets us imagine how things might be different if all parents had a personal stake in ensuring that every school served the needs of all its students. Would so-called education reformers still argue that class size doesn’t matter when talking about their own children’s schools? Would they insist that money isn’t important? Would they applaud a single-minded focus on raising test scores in math and reading?

Or would we find a way to create schools that provide rich opportunities for all, for “other people’s children” as well as our own?

Plucker blogging at Ed Week

Indiana University professor and Center for Evaluation and Education Policy director Jonathan Plucker is guest posting this week on the Rick Hess Straight Up blog at Education Week.

Plucker kicked off Monday with a piece on the PISA and TIMSS international assessments – and how Americans typically draw the wrong lessons from the way our students’ scores compare with those of students from other countries.

According to an IU news release, look for Plucker to also write about “excellence gaps” between high-achieving white, Asian-American, African-American and Hispanic children; the No Child Left Behind Act waivers that the U.S. Department of Education is granting; and Indianapolis Star columnist Matthew Tully’s recent book about a year at Indianapolis Manual High School.

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10 thoughts on “Why not ban private schools?

  1. Does this mean that every single motivated parent/family attends private school? Are there no motivated parents left in the public school system? Only 10% of American kids attend private schools and not all of these schools are of the “elite” type that so seem to bother the author.
    Using this logic, writers should be forced to write only for the public good in a public forum regardless of their talent and experience.

    • Pak, thanks for writing. I don’t have figures, but I think the percentage of kids in private schools varies a lot by location. There are unquestionably many, many motivated parents and amazing kids in public schools everywhere. I would never suggest otherwise. On the other hand, I do believe there are urban areas where many upper-class or middle-class parents wouldn’t dream of sending their kids to public schools. Or maybe they would send them to public charter schools or certain magnet schools, but not traditional public schools that are mostly minority or mostly poor. I don’t think there’s much debate about that; I’ve heard it from friends and I’ve seen it first hand. My point is that, if all parents had a direct stake in the quality of public education, there would be a lot more motivation and resources in play to ensure that the quality is excellent.

  2. Steve, having sent my kids to both public and private school, I am torn. I believe strongly in the public school system, but we did send our kids to a private school earlier in their schooling, and frankly i see them performing above the public school system requirements. And I saw their private-school compadres ranking at the top of their high school class.

    Is it just my kids are smarter than others? No. So why are some of the private schools teaching above where public schools are? On the other hand, I value the time my kids spent at MCCSC. My concern about the private school was not education, but social. I didn’t want my kids to think that the world was filled solely with wealthy people who drove large SUVs and gave their children IPhones in first grade.

    What I did see at the private school WAS a very involved parent population (sometimes, ahem, a little TOO involved). It would be interesting to see if that involvement was transferred to a public school. I have seen the private school parents continue their involvement when their children moved to one of the MCCSC high schools.

    But basically I think when you are looking at socio-economic issues, it is harder to be involved if you are a two-working-parent family with little leisure time.

    • Jana, those are interesting questions. I know there’s been a sense that Catholic schools are academically “better” going back to the Coleman report in the ’60s. But I think there’s also outstanding work done in public schools; and if you look at Indiana growth model results, the parochial schools in central-southern Indiana are all over the place — almost as much so as the public schools. I think the social part is important. On the other hand, you and I both know that, here in Bloomington, there’s as much socio-economic segregation within the public schools as between public and private. I certainly respect anyone’s decision to send his or her child to a private school, a charter school, to home school, or whatever. My problem with private education is the sense that, in some cities, at least, public schools have been abandoned to the poor. That doesn’t seem right.
      I should add that I’m partially a product of private education (St. Peter’s Lutheran School, grades 4-7). Comes in handy for the occasional Bible category in pub trivia.

  3. The point I made in the Hechinger Report blog post of 28 March still stands: this “thought experiment” has been tried, in communist eastern Europe. Why do the imaginers envision parents somehow being more involved, and still listened to, when their option of sending their children elsewhere has been taken away from them? This is a vision of how to disempower parents, perhaps particularly appealing to educrats who might then have an assured audience for their naive experiments. But once those parents are locked down in their local monopoly, what incentive do the administrators have in those local schools to listen to the parents who might want to become involved?

    • I’d argue the thought experiment is also tried every day in many rural and suburban U.S. school districts, where there are few real alternatives to the local public schools. Does that prevent parents from being involved? Do teachers and principals in those schools not care if students learn, because they don’t have to worry about them leaving? If I were convinced that more private and charter schools improved the overall quality of schooling for all kids, I’d be all for it. I haven’t seen a lot of evidence that that’s the case.

      • I live in such a suburban school district, by reputation one of the highest performing (Irvine Unified). Yesterday I called the supervisor of our local director of secondary schools, because the latter didn’t return my call concerning declining school choice in IUSD. This call to the assistant superintendent also wasn’t returned. We suburban parents also get ignored, although the tutoring centre my son attends (and which depends upon families happy enough to continue to pay) stays in contact with us regularly, as it believes that is the secret to success. Suburban public school parents’ involvement is generally superficial, and the local teachers and principals around here care far less about whether our children learn than I wish they did; they turned down the offer of my wife, a math teacher, of free after-school pre-algebra lessons, for example. The district leadership cares more about protecting the status quo.

      • That’s interesting. I appreciate your pointing out that reputation isn’t always reality. And wish you success in dealing with your local schools.

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