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Privatization of America’s Public Institutions: The Story of the American Sellout

reviewed by Brian Dotts - January 05, 2020

coverTitle: Privatization of America’s Public Institutions: The Story of the American Sellout
Author(s): Lawrence Baines
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433164329, Pages: 172, Year: 2019
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The nomination and appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in 2017 signified, perhaps, the triumphal merger of America’s neo-liberal privatization movement and America’s neo-conservative consensus. Devos’ family fortunes have supported a variety of privatization schemes including school vouchers, the privatization of public charter schools, and a curriculum diffused with Christianity for the purposes of “advance[ing] God’s Kingdom” (Stewart, 2016). In other words, this merger represents a decades-long attempt to use public policies and public institutions to advance the symbiotic interests of corporate and Evangelical America.

Of course, the privatization movement goes beyond subjecting public education to profitable ventures. As Lawrence Baines of the University of Oklahoma thoughtfully explains in Privatization of America’s Public Institutions, privatization has become institutionalized in America’s military, its correctional systems, and is becoming a major feature in many of America’s institutions of higher learning. While the privatization of sanitation services and recyclables tends to have benign, if not beneficial results, Baines successfully illustrates with extensive research how the privatization of public institutions has produced significant “perils” by removing democratic control of and responsibility and accountability for traditional public institutions, increasing costs to taxpayers, degrading the quality of services provided to Americans, and incentivizing profits above “human welfare” (pp. 161–162). In pursuing these arguments, Baines offers a wealth of research, numerous graphs and tables, and outlines to help readers understand the significant problems caused by privatization and the differences between traditional public institutions and their newer, privately contracted management.

In Chapter One, for example, Baines argues that “44% of all federal discretionary spending allotted for defense” was paid “to private contractors,” that most private contractors make substantially more than “U.S. military personnel,” that “few private contractors are Americans [who] outnumber soldiers,” and that many of them are “not subject to American” or “military laws,” making them unaccountable to the American people (pp. 11–12). Baines also concludes that “100% of the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps (ROTC) programs in 270 colleges and universities in the United States are outsourced to private contractors” (p. 13). Tables in this chapter illustrate the billions of dollars given just to the top five private contractors in 2016 with Lockheed Martin leading the list. Baines notes that “about half of Department of Defense contracts are non-competitive” agreements (pp. 18–20). Baines also includes an interview with a former soldier and private security contractor to support his research conclusions (pp. 23–25). Baines describes this mercenary growth as the “fifth branch of the military,” which he expects to grow beyond its current levels (p. 30). Among the consequences of this privatization are that it transfers tax dollars from public institutions to corporations, that it “complicates… allegiance to Country,” and that “the Public grows increasingly detached from military affairs,” making accountability difficult to ascertain, according to Baines (p. 31).

In Chapter Two, Baines shows how, despite the significant drop in crime since 1993, the number of private prisons and detention centers has increased, along with costs to the American taxpayers. He describes how private correction companies develop contracts with government agencies that “guarantee a certain level of income from the state while minimizing potential liabilities” (p. 44). The current administration has, according to Baines, utilized a number of privately operated detention centers (some of which were previously closed) to house undocumented immigrants at a high cost to taxpayers. Baines provides an opening example focusing on the Two Rivers Detention Center in Montana and the private prison company that won the contract to manage it, Core Civic, in order to highlight the numerous problems involved in the privatization of corrections in America.

Baines provides a number of tables and graphs illustrating the number of persons supervised in the criminal justice system (totaling 6,757,000) in 2016 (p. 45). He also provides tabular information about America’s prison population and those most likely to be incarcerated (p. 47), and the type of crimes committed by adults and detained juveniles, including violations that do not necessarily require incarceration (p. 48). It’s obvious that much of what contributes to the current mass incarceration is the demand for more prisoners, which creates more profits. According to Baines, extensive lobbying by private prison companies is an investment they are willing to pay in order to enjoy long-term profits. “Core Civic,” for example, “spends an average ‘$1.4 million per year on lobbying at the federal level’ and they ‘employed a yearly average of 70 lobbyists at the state level.’” In addition, “private prison corporations gave an average of ‘$350,000 to sitting members of Congress,’” based on information he obtained from OpenSecrets.org (p. 56). Baines also includes an interview with two prison guards who worked for the GEO Group, a private correctional corporation (pp. 57–60), confirming a multitude of problems associated with privatization.

In Chapter Three, Baines focuses on the privatization of k-12 schooling. While he tends to conflate all charter schools into one privatized group, he does an excellent job of illustrating the relationships between public charter schools and educational management organizations like Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) (pp. 81–83). Keep in mind that most public charter schools operate solely as public institutions, but the number managed by educational management organizations is growing as a result of the privatization movement. Baines illustrates the substantial salary differentials between traditional public school administrators and administrators in privately operated public schools, including KIPP administrators. Baines helps readers understand the differences between traditional public schools and charter schools with graphs and tables, and provides numerous examples of specific privatized charter schools. One graph shows readers the typical path for setting up a charter school, including “how sub-contractors are selected,” the authorization process, justifications given by state legislators to support choice, how “funds are [often] spent without oversight or accountability,” and how “free property and buildings” for privatized charter schools are obtained. He also demonstrates that “charter school achievement is lower than public school achievement,” that “charter teachers earn 20% less than public school peers,” and that “charters spend less of their revenue on students than public schools” (p. 92).

Baines provides several examples, including privatized charter schools in Oconee County, Georgia, San Diego, California, Hollywood, Florida, Albuquerque, New Mexico, New York City, and Chicago, Illinois (pp. 93–94). Baines provides numerous tables illustrating information related to vouchers, including the number of states that allow vouchers, voucher categorization, and the number of students enrolled in schools via vouchers (pp. 97–101). This chapter concludes with a discussion of the use of education savings accounts and tax credit scholarships, and the most recent privatization reforms gaining steam throughout the country, such as funneling tax revenue into private religious schools via tax credits. Education savings accounts, according to Baines, have resulted in “widespread fraud, negligence, and criminal activity cited in several reports” (p. 101). Significant problems from privatization of k-12 schooling often undermine the best interests of children by subjecting them and their education to profitable motives, the increased segregation of children, and the “denigration” of “teacher quality” in “privatized schools” (pp. 105–108).

In Chapter Four, Baines focuses on privatization efforts in higher education, specifically outsourced services, profit-centered decision making, and circumventing colleges and universities by incentivizing the hiring of adjuncts and online instructors with Master’s Degrees, which makes sense when the bottom line focuses on profits. Baines points out that “100% of all universities today… outsource at least some components  of the college experience,” but due to increased funding cuts to higher education by state legislatures, many of whom have an interest in privatization, universities have had to rely on increased privatization schemes and raising college tuition for students (p. 124). Tables in this chapter include a comparative list of university responsibilities between 1996 and 2017 illustrating the growing responsibilities that have been outsourced to the private sector, including but not limited to student housing, advising, recruitment, parking, and security (p. 124).

Baines offers several specific universities that have come under increasing private control, including the University of Georgia’s contracting with Corvias, giving it “the rights to several properties on Georgia’s public campuses for the next 65 years,” the privatization of Michigan State University’s Eli Broad College of Business, “online nursing programs at Arkansas State University and the University of Texas at Arlington,” Louisiana State University’s online programs, and several of the University of Florida’s online bachelor degree programs. Several of the private companies involved in higher education, according to Baines, include “Pearson, Academic Partnerships, Education 2 Go, Bisk, Everspring, Apollidon Learning, and 2U” (pp. 125–129).

According to Baines, the privatization of higher education results in a “de-emphasis on service,” an “increase of out-of-state students” in order to augment funds, “an increase in the use of adjuncts, teaching assistants, temporary instructors, and clinical faculty,” preferential treatment for “popular majors” at the expense of “unpopular majors,” and “changes in the mode of delivery,” which amounts to more online courses to decrease costs (pp. 130–132). Baines provides an interview with a former teacher candidate in Texas who experienced an alternative online teacher certification program, illustrating a number of problems that support Baines’ overall arguments (pp. 134–137). According to Baines, the privatization taking place in higher education is resulting in institutions “losing touch with their public mission(s),” the university experience “becoming commodified, standardized, and monetized,” and the “outsourcing” of university services, which tends to “propagate low standards, low wages, and low loyalty” (pp. 142–144).

I think Baines is correct in his conclusion that privatization represents “America’s sellout” to corporate America (p. 155). While universities and k-12 schools are not to blame, state legislators have for a variety of reasons defunded their respective state institutions to the point that they increasingly must rely on private funding, which of course potentially taints the knowledge produced by those institutions and the experiences students have during their education. Not unlike k-12 schooling, universities have been increasingly subjected to the dictates of private donors and market frameworks that treat students more like customers than learners. It is not difficult to glean from these actions the goals of certain policymakers who support the increased privatization of public institutions generally. Baines’ final chapter offers a dismal outlook as these trends continue to grow, but he does offer a glimmer of hope when he concludes that “there is plenty to admire in what American public universities and colleges have accomplished and what they might accomplish if they can manage to remain accessible, open, fair, and free of undue influence” (p. 145). The same can be said, of course, of our k-12 schools. Perhaps the 2020 election will bring about a turning point by rejecting the growth of privatization and by regaining control of our public institutions and freeing them from profitable motives. Baines’ book certainly provides readers with reasoned motives for moving in this direction.


Stewart, K. (2016, December 13). Betsy DeVos and god’s plan for schools,” The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/opinion/betsy-devos-and-gods-plan-for-schools.html.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 05, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23166, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 10:47:40 AM

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About the Author
  • Brian Dotts
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    BRIAN W. DOTTS is an Associate Professor of Educational Foundations at the University of Georgia. Dotts is author of "Educational Foundations: Philosophical and Historical Perspectives (Cambridge University Press, 2019), "The Political Education of Democratus: Negotiating Civic Virtue during the Early Republic" (Lexington Books, 2012), and he is co-editor and contributor to "The Elusive Thomas Jefferson: The Man Behind the Myths" (McFarland, 2017).
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