John Thompson, historian and retired teacher, reviews an important new book.

Lawrence Baines’ Privatization of America’s Public Institutions: The Story of the American Sellout combines analyses of assaults on four public sectors, the military, corrections departments, public schools, and higher education, to reveal the immense scale of privatization and its dangers. Dr. Baines, the Associate Dean of Education at the University of Oklahoma, shows that “Privatization is no longer an occasional strategy to help improve efficiency of a particular public service.” It “has become an automatic response to any perceived governmental inefficiency.” Baines carefully documents the ways that “Privatization is changing the nature of America’s public institutions and consequently, the character of the country.”

The first chapter, “Privatizing the Military: Profiting from the Carnage of War,” foreshadows a frightening pattern that explains why I, for one, was slow to see the full nature of the threat. It starts in 2007 with the killing of 17 persons in Baghdad by mercenaries employed by Erik Prince’s Blackwater. The people I know were horrified by that and other behavior of contract fighters when Dick Chaney, formerly of Halliburton, was Vice President. I had no idea, however, that by 2015, private contractors in the Mideast would outnumber soldiers by a 3 to 1 margin.

By that time, 44% of Department of Defense discretionary spending went to private contractors. As one military analyst said, contractors had become “the fifth branch of the military.” Baines explains how the inability to hold contractors accountable leads to an unknowable number of killings, meaning that we can’t evaluate the human and moral costs of military privatization any more than we can calculate the true financial costs.

Baines reports that we have reached the point where ROTC officer training is contracted out. Since the program acculturates cadets who will become the leaders of our democracy’s armed forces, an analyst says, this form of privatization may produce “‘longer-term effects on the overarching values that motivate military service.’”

This reader thought he had a more thorough understanding of the topic in the next chapter, “Privatizing Corrections: Making Money from Misery,” which documents the costs in money, lives, and our values of privatized prisons. I had read about numerous individual scandals, such as Montana Two Rivers Detention Center which was funded with a $27 million bond issue in 2007, but I had not seen the bigger picture described by Baines. Two Rivers remained vacant for 9 of 10 years but the private corporation which ran it still made money. Similarly, Mississippi had to pay off the debt of about $121 million for a closed prison, but its operators, Geo Group made over $2 billion. And with the scandal-ridden Pennsylvania institution, where the program was dubbed “kids for cash,” private operators walked away with profits for a million-dollar condominium and a $1.5 million yacht.

It’s bad enough that private operators charge more for detentions that were more brutal towards adult inmates, but since crime has declined, they’ve moved into even more disgusting systems for making big bucks, such as juvenile detentions. More than half of incarcerated juveniles are locked up for nonviolent crimes; 21% committed no crime. They are locked up due to “technical violations,” and “status offenses.” So, an institution profits from detaining a 13-year-old who didn’t show for a hearing about a fight he didn’t witness and a 15-year-old girl who ridiculed an assistant principal on social media.” The median time for a juvenile for status offense is 128 days.

Then the story grows more horrific. As states like Oklahoma over-incarcerate on the cheap, fees and fines become an essential funding source. I knew how cruel the situation is in Oklahoma, where we are #1 in the world in incarceration rates, but I had no idea that 48 states have gone down that path. And since fees and fines are a doomed method of funding the overgrown incarceration complex, monitored release of inmates is growing. That creates another market for privatizers, electronic bracelets to oversee parolees. And, surprise!, the lucrative, private market for monitoring those devices is “subject to virtually no judicial oversight.”

And the story became even more unconscionable as private prisons moved into another growing market, immigrant detentions. Since 2003, 176 immigrant deaths have gone largely unreported by for-profit institutions. And private prisons have enabled Trump’s attacks on immigrant families.

Moreover, the dangers and costs of privatized prisons, like those of privatized schools, have grown worse during the Trump administration. And that leads to Baines’ concise indictment of the privatization of public schools through charter schools and vouchers. Readers of this blog are well-versed in the ways that privatization has undermined public education, so I will merely touch a few of Baines’ insights in Chapter Three, “Privatizing K – 12 Public Education: How the Profit Motive Is Changing Schools,” as well as recommend a full reading of his evidence.

The use of privatization as a tool for corporate school reform has denigrated teacher quality and fostered dumbed-down education. It uses technology to reduce number of teachers needed in the culture of data-driven competition it created. It has gotten to the point where 5,000 emergency certificates were issued in Oklahoma in 2017 and 2018. Next door, Texas adjudicated 222 cases of teacher misconduct in 2016, with most involving sex acts with minors. The backlogged caseload is over 1,100.

And privatization has increased inequality and segregation. Baines offers a corrective to the spin of charter advocates who deny they have promoted segregation, “Most minority students who attend privatized schools have few white classmates; most white students who attend privatized schools have few minority classmates.”

The next topic that Baines analyzes, higher education, is intertwined with the legacy of privatization by charters and vouchers, as well as the budget-cutting that has devastated k – 12 education in Oklahoma and many other states.

Early in the chapter, “Privatizing Public Education: Selling Off the Alma Mater,” Baines lists the ten states that have cut higher education by 26% to 54% from 2008 to 2017. Oklahoma is 6th, with cuts of 34%. In 1996, higher education privatization was basically limited to five support services. By 2017, there were 17 categories of privatized services, culminating with academic programs. Moreover, in 2016, 1/3rd of universities outsourced their online programs.

Public school teachers have more than enough experience with the testing toxicity pushed by the Pearson corporation and Eli Broad. Less well known is their intrusions into universities. Privatizers have even moved into micro-credentialing, making money off of credentials for skills like “Checking for understanding using whiteboards.” Moreover, when these online providers are both a private company and a LLC (Limited Liability Company), they aren’t obligated to reveal their instructors’ qualifications.

To take just a couple of Baines’ examples, the Eli Broad College of Business, Michigan State University gets 32% of the gross revenue in partnership with Bisk, “a corporation specializing in curricular design, online education, and student support,” which gets 68% of the gross revenue from the Business Analytics master’s program. Baines notes that most students probably don’t know that they will not be taught by M.S.U. faculty, as opposed to Bisk employees who may not have a degree in the subject they are teaching.

A similar lack of transparency is illustrated by Arkansas State University’s Academic Partnership program where students aren’t told that they may not have instructors from their university, and that A.S.U. program’s website is virtually identical to its counterpart at U. of Texas, Arlington, which has 18 tenure-track faculty and a 1000-1 ratio for tenure track faculty.

Finally, Baines listed the costs to graduates, and students who failed to graduate from our privatized universities. Ironically, these debts are, in large part, a legacy of corporate school reform which claimed to be a “21st century civil rights movement.”

From 2010 to 2016 individuals with at least some college “captured 11.5 million of the 11.6 million jobs available.” Pay for workers without a high school diploma is less than half of that for workers with a college degree, so access to high-quality education should have been an important tool for achieving equity. But even when a student earns college degree, privatization has undermined the prospects for many or most graduates. Pell Grants used to pay 75% of 4-year college costs but now they only pay for about 30%. Consequently, former university students have accumulated $1.5 trillion in debt.

Too often, the value of university degrees has been compromised. Today, 70% of higher education instructors are adjuncts. The university’s mission of service to society has been de-emphasized. College is supposed to be a transformational experience “a rush of unfamiliar people, cultures, knowledge, relationships, and interactions.” But now, the “collegiate experience is becoming commercialized, standardized, and monetized.”

Baines wraps up his account of the human and financial costs of privatizations by illustrating ways that the military, prisons, public schools, and higher education are being undermined by interrelated forces. Just as the military’s belief in service to the U.S. is put at risk, the university’s contributions to the public good are being undermined. Privatized prisons lead to more segregation of inmates by race as a means of self-protection. Similarly, privatized schools increase segregation as they foster a culture of competition that increases inequality. And the tragic tale all comes together in the final chapter about the privatization of universities.

Baines explains that, “Privatization is happening so quickly and on such a colossal scale in higher education that it is difficult to stay current.” To take one example of how it is interconnected with k-12th grade schools, he shows how teacher certification is “being transmogrified into a product traded on the open market, teachers are circumventing universities and teacher preparation completely and moving straight into the classroom.” This has led to unqualified teachers being rushed into many states’ classrooms, pushing down school quality and enabling privatizers to blame the public schools.

Privatization of America’s Public Institutions is so full of memorable characterizations of the tragedies of privatization that it is difficult to select one as a concluding statement. So, I’ll borrow Baines’ quote of the Commissioner of U.S. Bureau of Education, whose words from 1891 would be equally true if applied to today’s armed forces or the penal system. The commissioner said, “let us hope, that the time is not far distant when an untrained teacher will be considered a greater absurdity than an untrained doctor or lawyer.”