Motley Moose – Archive

Since 2008 – Progress Through Politics

Why have public education? (updated)

I recently linked an article on Facebook to a talk by Bill Gates on the state of public education in our country today. One commenter maintained that Bill, as a “monopolist,” has no right to comment in any way about our public school system until he’s willing to put his own kids into it. Another said that the public system underperforms and that since private schools deliver superior results, all schools should be privatized. This diary is an attempt to respond to both.


First, I don’t have to be part of something in order to care about it. I don’t have to move into low-income housing in order to care about how it’s administered. I don’t have to be gay to care about gay rights or be able to bear children in order to care about reproductive freedom. The fact is that a highly educated populace is good for the nation as a whole.

To Bill Gates, I imagine Microsoft will always be his “baby” on some level, whatever role he does or doesn’t play in its day-to-day functioning. And the fact is that great technological innovations — the kind it takes to remain competitive — require talented, creative, bright people. Why is Microsoft importing highly skilled foreigners when so many Americans vainly send out résumé after résumé? Because they can do the job, and it’s damned hard to find enough Americans with the skills and talent they need.

But, being a good, socially responsible man, Bill Gates would very much prefer to do the patriotic thing if only he could find the people to do the job. Therefore, he has a keen interest in education in our country, and I applaud his efforts on this front. He doesn’t want to privatize the schools — I don’t even know where that comes from — he wants to raise the standards.

As far as private schools having a better track record than public schools, I suppose they do, in the same way that hiring a private attorney will help you win your case more often than going with the public defender. A private attorney can pick and choose his clients, and a private school can pick and choose its students. Public servants must take all comers, which can stack the odds against them. But is this a reason to get rid of public defenders? Not at all — our legal system is so complex that only someone with intensive training in it is likely to negotiate it with even remote success. To deprive defendants of legal counsel is to deprive them of the right to a fair trial.

You say that public school did “nothing” for your child. Well, maybe by your standards and those of your fellow educators, that is true. But what about the harried young mother of three who’s working two jobs to make ends meet? Would the little bit of education provided by public school mean the difference between her kids growing up knowing a few of the basics, versus only what they can pick up from the gangs and bums?

Here’s what happens if we privatize all public schools — Mr. & Mrs. Taxpayer still have to pay for them, in the form of vouchers, but no longer have any say in how they’re run, what is taught, etc.

Do any of the best education systems in the world get that way by privatizing it all? On the contrary, those countries demonstrate a strong collective investment in education. They honor their teachers instead of calling them slobs and freeloaders on the nation’s airwaves. That would be unthinkable in most other civilized nations in the world!

Why should I care about education at all? I don’t have kids, never did, and never will. But a well-educated society is more likely to be safe, enjoyable, and prosperous. In many big cities in Europe, where education is highly prized, it’s no more dangerous to walk down the street at night than it is to walk to my bathroom. Who is more likely to hold me up at knifepoint and demand all my money — the happily-employed, successful guy, or the penniless, pissed-off guy who’s got nothing and nowhere to go for the night? Who’s more likely to wind up pregnant and either getting an abortion or dropping out of school and going on the dole — the bright young girl who’s excited about her studies and has a clear career path in mind, or the one who’s struggling to the point of feeling like a failure and looking for whatever comfort and reassurance she might find in some sweet-talker’s arms?

There are SO many reasons we all ought to care about, and fight for, the quality of public education in this country. One of them is pure patriotism. Do we want to be the country of which it is said, “Their school systems are so bad that everybody who can afford to sends their kids to private schools,” or worse, “Their school systems were so bad that they finally just closed them, and only those who can afford it send their kids to school”?

Please, America — why can’t we be the envy of the world again? Can’t we at least try, or are we too defeated even to contemplate it anymore?


  1. being woven through the fabric of this country. I think it is related to the culture of greed that became mainstreamed in the 1980’s. It can be boiled down to “What’s in it for me?” Too many politicians appeal to the worst of human nature. It leads to attitudes like, “Why should abortion or birth control be covered by insurance? I don’t use either one.” Or, “My kids go to private school. Why should I have to pay for public schools?”

    Although the populace has always been pitted against each other, to an extent, there was a time in this country when people cared about their neighbors. There was a sense of community. We are moving farther and farther away from that attitude.

  2. jsfox

    As someone who went to private schools starting in the first grade and on to boarding school in the seventh I can tell you flat out that private schools are not necessarily better. Like all education it depends on the teachers and parental involvement not on what you pay for it.

    As a student I sucked. I hated school and no one much cared. My parents were not involved other than admonishing me for my lousy report cards*. My teachers on the whole except for some remarkable exceptions could have cared less as to why I didn’t seem to care to learn what they were teaching.

    So all in all private schools gave me a crappy education

    * Let me make it clear I am not blaming my parents they honestly believed they were doing what was right. My Dad traveled a great deal and my Mother more often than not went with him. And they were also used to my older brother and sister who had done very well in school all on their own.

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