During a 1986 news conference, former President Ronald Reagan famously decried “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” as the nine most terrifying words in the English language. The quote embodies the ethos of both the Reagan administration and the conservative movement ever since. Neoliberal reforms over the past generation have in many ways transcended the thinking of free-market icons like Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand to not only champion market forces as solutions to societal ills but also question the necessity of public goods in sustaining democracy.

In The Privatization of Everything: How the Plunder of Public Goods Transformed America and How We Can Fight Back (The New Press, 2021), Donald Cohen and Allen Mikaelian document the privatization over the past several decades of a wide range of public goods, from state parks and local water systems to higher education. In doing so, Cohen and Mikaelian call for a more nuanced view of privatization that goes beyond the basic transfer of ownership of public goods into private hands. They focus, in particular, on the shift in control from public and democratic decision-making that often accompanies privatization efforts. It becomes evident throughout their analysis just how ubiquitous market logic has become and how effective messaging from the likes of Reagan and others has been in pushing for privatization, ingraining an association of poor quality with public projects and institutions, and reorienting how Americans think about the role of government.

For Cohen, the founder and executive director of In the Public Interest (ITPI), a research center based in Oakland, and Mikaelian, a doctoral fellow in history at American University, market logic pervades all areas of public policy reform. This excerpt from their book encapsulates the co-optation of market logic to advance the school choice movement. The proliferation of charter schools across the country, they argue, could not have occurred without a bipartisan political consensus rooted in the idea of market competition as a guarantor of innovation and, in turn, student success in the classroom.

But the notion that innovation can only occur in competitive environments is simply untrue, Cohen and Mikaelian contend, especially in school settings where student achievement and knowledge production hinge on collaboration. In this regard, Cohen and Mikaelian challenge a common revisionist history of the origins of charter schools. According to this revisionist take, Albert Shanker, the longtime head and face of the American Federation of Teachers, laid the foundation for the modern version of charter schools. Far from it, Cohen and Mikaelian write. Shanker rather envisioned charter schools as alternative schools squarely within public systems driven by teacher collaboration and community input. Shanker’s initial advocacy for charter schools was in no way, shape, or form built on the commercial premise of choice as a mechanism for the production of education. Shanker instead expected that charter schools would help to professionalize teacher labor and spark innovation in school administration and pedagogy through a collective vision of how best to meet student needs.

By contrast, many charter schools have succumbed to the very practices that market competition was supposed to suppress: high-stakes testing, regimented curricula, scripted lesson plans, and harsh disciplinary systems. This excerpt further highlights anticompetitive behavior on the part of some charter schools, such as requiring teachers to sign non-disclosure agreements to keep teaching strategies and lesson plans in-house. In these types of environments, the lines between serving students and enhancing a school’s market position are blurred. Indeed, as Cohen and Mikaelian suggest, “Competition doesn’t guarantee that schools will be driven to innovate. Sometimes they will just be driven to win.”

The takeaways from this excerpt echo the sentiment presented throughout Cohen and Mikaelian’s book, namely, that market rules shouldn’t apply to all aspects of our lives. Running schools like businesses with students and families as customers is unlikely to deliver on promises of efficiency and academic progress and may in fact limit educational innovation. This is not to say that all charter schools are run in such a way, nor that charter schools cannot adequately serve some students. It does suggest, however, the need to shift the narrative of education reform to emphasize education as a public good requiring robust funding and community participation directed at benefiting all members of society.

Given these and other trends in privatization, reading Cohen and Mikaelian’s work can be depressing, but the authors try to remain optimistic and offer constructive steps for rethinking how we can reclaim and reinvest in public goods. Whether you want to better understand the school choice movement or more fully grasp the reach of privatization in the United States, this book makes the case for why we all stand to gain from goods, services, and institutions that are truly public.

Daniel Sparks
Research Associate, NCSPE