The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What are Bill Gates and Warren Buffett talking about?

Here’s one depressing conversation.

Three of the most successful men in the history of men — Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Berkshire Hathaway chief  Warren Buffett and Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charlie Munger — were on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” this week to talk about public education. (You can watch it above or here.)

Why does it matter what they say about public education? Gates in recent years has had an outsized role in public education policy as the world’s largest philanthropist, having put billions of dollars from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation into controversial and questionable school reform efforts. He funded the development of the Common Core State Standards and has poured millions of dollars into efforts to promote them across the country. Buffett has given billions of dollars from his fortune to the Gates foundation.

So what exactly did they say, and why is it so depressing?

Here’s what Gates said in part:

“One piece of good news is that the charter schools are doing a very good job of educating kids in the inner city where typically the dropout rates are very very high and very few kids go to college. The good charters have overcome that, so by using long school days, a long school year, a different way of working with the teachers, amazing results have taken place. … We haven’t moved the needle for most students. Charters are only a few percent, so we have to spread those best practices in order to get real change….
“It’s not easy [ to change the public education system]. School boards have a lot of power, so they have to be convinced. Unions have a lot of power…. We need more pilot programs, more dialogue to get all the entities — government, school boards, unions — moving towards more intensive educational process..
“Of all the foundation areas we work in, I’d say this has proven to be the most difficult…  There are some entrenched practices. It’s a very big system. Its over $600 billion a year being spent and it’s a system very resistance to change. The best results have come in cities where the mayor is in charge of school systems. So you have one executive and the school board isn’t as powerful. So New York city made real progress. In Chicago, they are making real progress. But those area really the only cities where the mayor has a strong role.”


Good schools of any kind have had success in helping students achieve — not just good charters. Gates seems to be perpetuating the myth that only charter schools have had success in cities. Charters didn’t pioneer the use of long school days, or a longer school year. Meanwhile, his reference to “amazing results” suggests stories about charter “miracle” schools that have been debunked over and over. As for mayoral control, it is hardly a panacea.  New York and Chicago are  not the “only cities where the mayor has [had] a strong role.” Former D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty, who won total control over the school system and hired Michelle Rhee to run it in 2007, would probably take issue would that, as would other mayors who had control of their systems (Seattle, Baltimore, Philadelphia, etc).

As for “real progress” in Chicago and New York City under mayoral control, it’s hard to understand what he is talking about. Perhaps Gates doesn’t know that when Michael Bloomberg was mayor of New York City and hired Joel Klein as chancellor, the improvements that Bloomberg/Klein touted were illusory; the achievement gap was not narrowed and standardized test score improvements that the two men touted for years were found to be inflated.

In the CNBC conversation, Buffett complained that public schools would be better if the “wealthy in many many cities” had not “opted out” of the system and sent their own kids to private schools. He recalled how his own father had served the “thankless” job of being a member of a local school board, and he said that city schools would improve if the rich cared more about them.

“We are spending the money. It isn’t like there is any lack of resources going into it…. If the only choice available were public schools, we’d have better public schools, but the wealthy in many many cities have opted out of the public schools system. They might vote for the bond issues out of conscience, and some of them may engage philanthropically, but with their own kids they send them to private schools, and by having this division essentially between the rich and poor…. In the end the people who don’t have their kids in public schools and know their kids are not going to go to public schools or their grandkids… .. are not going to have the intensity of interest across the board.”

We do spend a mountain of money on public education, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lack of resources in many districts and schools. Just ask teachers, many of whom spend hundreds of dollars from their own wallets for basic school supplies. Philadelphia public schools are operating under a budget that has no money for things like copy paper. The federal government spends billions a year on “Title 1” money that goes to schools with high percentages of students from low-income families because these schools have far less to spend than wealthy schools, but it doesn’t make up the gap in part because local school funding is largely based on property taxes.

Yes, there is a split between the wealthy and the poor when it comes to public schools, but it’s not only because the wealthy send their kids to private schools. His comments also suggest that city schools have two groups — the wealthy and the poor — when in fact there are plenty of middle-class families who send their kids to public schools in cities.

And then there were comments from Munger, in which he says that McDonald’s, the fast-food chain, does a fantastic job of educating “troubled” young people to be “good citizens” — even better than charter schools do (a statement at which Gates sort of nods his head and smiles).

“It’s fun by the elite academic types in America to say McDonald’s is the wrong kind of food and its the wrong kind of this, and the jobs don’t pay very much and so forth. I have quite a very different view. I think McDonald’s is one of the most successful educational institutions in the United States. They take people and give them a first job which enables them to get a second job. They do a very, very good job of educating troubled young people to be good citizens. And they are probably more successful than charter schools. So I am a big fan of McDonald’s.”

At this point Buffett seems to support the analysis of McDonald’s as a great educational institution, saying that he stops by a particular McDonald’s restaurant for breakfast on many mornings and he has gotten to know some of the workers. He noted that they “have to be there at a certain time, they have to learn how to count money, price items, and they have to learn how to smile at people.” Maybe he doesn’t know that not all cash registers tell the employee exactly how much money to return to the customer, and that not everyone who works in McDonald’s actually smiles at customers.

Munger, who donates to higher education, then makes it a point to say that he doesn’t spend his time trying to improve troubled K-12 schools because he “tires easily” and he isn’t “any good at constant failure.” He adds: “You have to be a saint or a Gates to do that.”

I suppose you could also be someone who simply cares about the future of public education, the most important civic institution in the United States, such as the millions of parents, teachers and others who work to make public schools better.