Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Warren Buffet a Foe of Public Education? Not Exactly.

Perhaps because of Buffet’s close association with Bill Gates — they played bridge together over the Internet and Buffet gave his billions to Bill & Melinda because he trusted their philanthropic instincts — it would be natural to think that Buffet and Bill have similar views about the future of education. Not so.

In a recent book review, Sacramento journalist Seth Sandronsky wrote: “What accounts for the reformers’ success is not actual facts but copious greenbacks from wealthy interests. … Call this class war. And according to billionaire investor Warren Buffet, his class is winning. Funding this conflict are venture philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli and Edythe Broad, and the Walton Family foundation.”

You would have to know a lot about Warren Buffet and his views on society not to come away from that paragraph thinking that Buffet is right there with the other reformers as an enemy of teacher unions and public education. Well, the truth is that Buffet does not stand with the GERM (Global Education Reform Movement). In fact, the Sage of Omaha is a sworn supporter of public education. Perhaps Sandronsky should have read this entry in the Huffington Post before loosely connecting Buffet to the likes of the Waltons, the Broads, and education reformers Bill & Melinda:

What if I said to you that the solution to the problems in our education system would be to "make private schools illegal and assign every child to a [state] school by random lottery"?

That's the view not of Karl Marx or the Chinese Communist Party but of the billionaire US investor and philanthropist Warren Buffett. The "Sage of Omaha" has been a longstanding campaigner for equality of opportunity and social mobility — and sees the existence of private schools as a major barrier to both. For Buffett, the fact that a tiny minority of wealthy families can choose to opt out of the state sector, and send their children to expensive and elite private schools, has a negative impact on the overall education of the vast majority of students whose families cannot afford to do the same.

I have long contended that a large part of Buffet’s success as an investor is due to the fact that he has spent almost his whole life in Omaha, Nebraska. His location and surroundings have given him a practical view of reality often missing in the minds of Wall Street hotshots and hedge fund managers. When the Masters of the Universe on Wall Street were chasing — and losing — fortunes buying Netscape and Napster stock, Buffet reasoned that humans in the future would probably buy underwear, and he assumed a big position in Fruit-of-the-Loom stock. I suspect that his views on public vs private education are equally sound. (Check out this previous posting on Buffet and the Circle of Competence.)

Back to Bill Gates, the Waltons, and Eli Broad. In the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye, the poor milkman of Anatevka, sings the classic song “If I Were a Rich Man.” Embedded in the lyrics are these lines:

When you’re rich, they think you know.
The most important men in town would come to fawn on me!
It won't make one bit of difference if I answer right or wrong.
Yes, some rich people are right, and some are wrong.

Gene V Glass
Arizona State University
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent the official position of NEPC, Arizona State University, nor the University of Colorado Boulder.


  1. Hmm. The quote attributed to Buffet is actually a quote of Michelle Rhee, who attributed it to Buffet:
    Warren Buffett framed the problem for me once in a way that clarified how basic our most stubborn obstacles are. He said it would be easy to solve today’s problems in urban education.

    “Make private schools illegal,” he said, “and assign every child to a public school by random lottery.”

    Do you believe that the quote is a fair representation of Buffet's beliefs concerning "public education"? I'd say, "Not exactly."

    Politically, Buffet supported the campaigns of both Barack Obama for President and Arnold Schwarzenegger for Governor, both of whom buy into the Corporate cabal's privatization of public education position. Since Buffet put his money where Bill Gates mouth is, his extended "Circle of Competence" is the Billionaire's Boys Club, wouldn't you say?

  2. Dick, thanks for the clarification of sources, always important to do.
    As for Buffet's support for certain candidates, and his turning over a sizable chunk of his estate to Gates, all I can say is that politics seldom -- make that, never -- offers one pure choices. All things considered, was Obama a better choice than McCain and Romney?

    1. Insofar as education is concerned, Obama, McCain, Romney--and the Clintons and Bushes for that matter--are pretty much birds of a feather who think like most Corporate Philanthropists. I can understand why they buy into "educational reform" ideology,but just as Alan Greenspan said about finance, "We thought we understood how the world works, and we were wrong" (words to that effect),
      so the reform logic is proving "wrong." But that's a whole nother story

      My hunch is that if pressed, Buffet would say that education is outside his Circle of Competence. I don't think there's a chance in the world he would say "Make private schools illegal," but I could be wrong.