Tag Archives: privatization

Vouchers, Education and Democracy

I was recently asked to write the entry on school vouchers for publication in the upcoming Encyclopedia of Public Administration. Here it is.  (Warning: it’s longer than my usual posts.)

Introduction. School voucher proposals gained traction in the late 1980s as part of a broader movement to privatize services previously delivered by government through its employees. Unlike the privatization program undertaken by Margaret Thatcher in England, in which public enterprises were sold off to the private sector, relieving government of further responsibility for their operation, in the United States privatization referred to the practice of contracting out delivery of government’s programmatic responsibilities to for-profit or non-profit third-party surrogates. Enthusiasm for this method of public service delivery led to a significant expansion of such practices, generating mixed results depending upon the service involved and the adequacy of government oversight. Voucher programs allowing parents to enroll their children in participating private schools of their choice, and to pay the tuition in full or in part with a government-issued voucher, have become one of the more contentious elements of the larger privatization agenda.

Enthusiasm for a market-based approach to schooling received impetus from a 1990 study by John Chubb and Terry Moe, Politics, Markets and America’s Schools.  Although several researchers subsequently challenged the data and methodology used in that study, which painted a grim picture of America’s schools, fewer critics initially took issue with their definition of “effective schooling,” which was to be measured against academic criteria only. For Chubb and Moe and those who agreed with their prescription for school privatization, the mission of the schools was limited to imparting competency in the math, science and language skills deemed crucial to economic self-sufficiency and America’s ability to succeed in the global marketplace. Only later did criticism of that premise become a major point of controversy between proponents and opponents of school vouchers.

Philosophy and Partisanship. At its intractable extremes, the school voucher debate is a conflict between two long-standing elements of the American political tradition: the commitment to personal choice and individual freedom, on the one hand, and an equally compelling belief in the importance of a common civic infrastructure and collective interests on the other. Debate over vouchers has become so contentious in large measure because it reflects the tension between these largely incompatible political priorities.

Rather than debating whether public schools are as deficient as some have portrayed them, and if so, in what respects, or debating the merits of one reform measure over another, the policy issue has become whether America should continue to support a system of free, publicly-controlled schools or whether government’s educational role should be reduced to that of funder, enabling families to use a specified number of taxpayer dollars to buy educational services in the marketplace.

Initial support for school vouchers came from several interest groups: Catholics desiring financial support for their parochial schools; political libertarians opposed to government control of education on ideological grounds; business interests concerned about public schools’ ability to produce a skilled workforce; and the Christian Right, which had advocated for Protestant prayer and religious instruction in the public schools and had been rebuffed by the Supreme Court in a series of cases begining in 1962, when Engel v. Vitale struck down the practice of official prayer in public school classrooms. These constituencies were, and are, largely aligned with the Republican Party, while the most reliably anti-voucher interest groups— public educators, especially teachers’ unions; the African-American community; and civil libertarians—represent important Democratic constituencies. Voucher programs have thus become a partisan issue. (Kennedy 2001) The political dimension of the voucher debate has been underscored by the very active role taken by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate lobbying organization that supports voucher programs. ALEC’s education task forces are funded primarily by libertarian interests, including the Charles Koch Foundation, the DeVos Foundation, and the Friedman Foundation. (Shaffer, Ellis & Swensson 2018)

Voucher proponents argue that competition in education leads to better schools at less cost. They point to test results showing that student achievement in private schools has historically been superior to the performance of students attending public schools. Opponents respond that much of the research purporting to compare public and private school outcomes fails to control for major differences in student body composition, including but not limited to parental socio-economic status and educational motivation.

Opponents and even supportive academics also warn of potentially damaging social consequences. John Witte, an educational researcher who evaluated and supported one of the earliest voucher programs, a 1990 experiment in Milwaukee, nevertheless noted that the program led to more segregation in the schools than otherwise would have been the case. (Witte 2000) Other researchers have worried about religious balkanization, since an estimated 80% of the private schools participating in voucher programs are religious. Still others have expressed concern that voucher programs largely abandon the civic mission of the schools. (Covaleskie 2007)

Legal issues. As voucher programs grew, opponents raised both First Amendment and state constitutional concerns, arguing that the use of public funds to pay tuition at religious schools violated both the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause and state-level prohibitions known as “Blaine Amendments.” The Supreme Court considered the First Amendment arguments in 2002, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris. That case challenged an Ohio voucher program that affected only the Cleveland City School District. In 1999 and 2000, 82% of the schools participating in the Cleveland program were religiously affiliated, and 96% of the students using the vouchers were enrolled in one of those religious schools. Both the District Court and the Court of Appeals ruled for the parents who were challenging the program; however, the Supreme Court reversed. The Court accepted the defense’s argument that the vouchers were payments to the parents, whose choice of religious schools was made freely and voluntarily, and that as a result, the vouchers could not properly be characterized as tax support for the religious schools. Since the choice of school was made by the parents, and the program’s goal of allowing low-income children to escape a failing school system was secular, the Court held that the voucher program did not run afoul of the Establishment Clause.

State courts have largely adopted the logic of the Zelman decision, allowing voucher programs to operate despite state constitutional provisions forbidding the payment of state tax dollars to religious institutions. These provisions, commonly called “Blaine Amendments,” were named for Congressman James Blaine, who sponsored a federal constitutional amendment in 1875 that would have forbidden public funding of religious schools. Blaine’s amendment was seen as an effort to prevent government from supporting the Catholic schools that had originally been established in response to Protestant bible-reading in public school classrooms.  Blaine’s effort at a federal amendment failed, but thirty-eight states subsequently added such provisions to their state constitutions. In sixteen states where Blaine Amendments seemed likely to preclude judicial approval of voucher programs, so-called “neo-vouchers” have used tax credits to circumvent the problem; the subsidies have been deemed “tax reductions” rather than direct spending. Arizona is the most prominent state employing this tactic; its Supreme Court upheld the state’s “tax credit scholarships” in 1998. In two states, Massachusetts and Michigan, both vouchers and neo-vouchers have been held to violate those states’ constitutions. (Davis 2016)

Performance. Recent research on statewide voucher programs in Louisiana and Indiana has cast doubt on the educational benefits promised by voucher proponents. (Dynarski & Nichols 2017) Public school students who received vouchers to attend private schools subsequently scored more poorly on reading and math tests when compared to similar students who remained in public schools. The magnitudes of the negative impacts were large, and the results could not be explained by the particular tests that were used or the possibility that students receiving vouchers had transferred out of above-average public schools. According to a Brookings Institute overview of available research, a Louisiana public school student who was average in math (at the 50th percentile) and began attending a private school using a voucher declined to the 34th percentile after one year. Students in third, fourth, or fifth grades had a steeper decline, to the 26th percentile. A student at the 50th percentile in reading declined to about the 46th percentile. In Indiana, a student who had entered a private school with a math score at the 50th percentile declined to the 44th percentile after one year. Earlier studies of voucher programs had shown more mixed results when measured by test scores, with scores improving for some students in some places, and failing to improve for other students in other places.

In January, 2018, The Wall Street Journal analyzed data on Milwaukee’s program, the nation’s oldest, and found that the city’s 29,000 voucher students, “on average, have performed about the same as their peers in public schools on state exams.”

A variety of explanations have been offered for the continued lack of evidence that vouchers improve student performance. Among the theories: Public schools have improved more than private ones since the early 1990s; business interests, often lacking background in education, have established schools they are ill-equipped to run; before vouchers, private school classrooms were occupied by children from more privileged backgrounds, and test scores tend to correlate highly with parental income. To date, no consensus has formed around any of these explanations.

Indiana’s results are particularly concerning, because the state has the nation’s largest, and arguably least restrictive, voucher program. Initial enrollment caps have been abandoned, as has the rule that children would not be eligible for a voucher unless they’d attended a public school for at least one year. (The initial justification for vouchers was to allow poor children to leave failing public schools.) The program is no longer limited to poor children; recent research suggests that nearly a third of Indiana’s voucher families could afford private school tuition without state subsidies. (Shaffer, Ellis & Swensson 2018)

Civic Dimension. If communities are created and sustained by the things we have in common, by mutual engagements that build social capital, it is particularly important to consider how overarching values and civic commitments are transmitted, supported and reinforced in a society as heterodox as that of the United States. The public schools have traditionally been seen as important to the forging of social solidarity, and have long been regarded as a public good. The public schools play a major role in introducing students who come from increasingly diverse backgrounds to each other and to America’s civic aspirations. To date, there are no research studies comparing public and private school performance in transmitting civic knowledge or success in encouraging civic behaviors.

Voucher proponents will generally not dispute the classification of education as a public good and except for the most ideological libertarians among them, do support a role for the state: the role of funder. Where they differ from proponents of a strong public education system is on the identity of the provider of educational services. Privatization proponents argue that the market can and should provide the education services and that government should enable individual families to purchase them. On the theoretical level, the voucher debate is one more instance of the tension between the libertarian belief in the efficacy of markets and the primacy of individual choice, and the more communitarian preference for mechanisms that encourage social cohesion.

Funding and Oversight. Education in the United States is a function specifically assigned to the states, and funding for public education has consistently been a major state-level budget item. Given state educational systems’ dependence upon the fiscal health and tax revenues of their home states, school funding and institutional quality across the country has been uneven. Voucher programs must be funded out of those same state budgets, and opponents of those programs charge that they are siphoning off funds desperately needed by the public schools. In Indiana, the state with the country’s largest voucher program, state support for vouchers in 2016-17 totaled 146.1 million dollars; between 2011 and 2017, the state spent 520 million dollars. Public school administrators assert that these are funds that would otherwise have gone to the state’s public schools, while advocates for voucher programs insist that the programs actually save the state money.

The fiscal impact of vouchers, and the veracity of the dueling claims, is difficult to assess for several reasons. Differences in the way in which states construct their programs means that impacts vary from state to state. Voucher proponents’ claim that vouchers save taxpayers money is based upon the fact that most vouchers are issued for amounts that are less than the per pupil cost of educating a child in the state’s public schools. Since the money that follows the child is less than the cost incurred by the public system to educate that child, the public school retains the difference. That claim, however, overlooks two reasons why such savings are more theoretical than real: first, a growing number of students enrolled in voucher programs were never in the public system. Second, there is not a one-to-one reduction of public school expense when a student leaves. For example, if one or two students leave a class of 25, the school system must still provide a teacher, a classroom and supplies for the 23 who remain. The school system must continue to maintain its facilities and pay sufficient personnel to conduct necessary administrative functions. It is only when large numbers of children take vouchers and depart that school districts can realize savings by closing buildings, consolidating classes and firing teachers. Thus far, there has been little to no credible research on the actual fiscal effects of the various iterations of voucher and neo-voucher programs on public school systems.

This lack of research is at least partially due to a lack of data. Oversight of voucher programs by most states has been minimal. Despite the large amounts of money involved, private schools accepting vouchers have not generally been subject to reporting requirements, either curricular or fiscal. In Louisiana, independent reporting found many religious schools teaching creationism in science class and using grossly inaccurate, religiously proselytizing texts in history. In Ohio, a 1999 investigation by the Akron Beacon Journal found school choice legislation had been developed as a quid pro quo for campaign contributions and documented improper political behavior by a local businessman who then established private schools specifically to take advantage of the opportunity created by the legislation. His schools generated 16 million dollars from vouchers in the 1999-2000 academic year; the students who attended his schools were subsequently found to perform more poorly than those in the public schools. In Florida, the Miami News Times won an award for its expose of a voucher program for children with physical and learning disabilities; the paper reported safety violations, physical abuse, frequent relocations, a lack of curriculum, and virtually no state oversight.

Conclusion. The combination of cutbacks to public schools, reports of malfeasance by voucher schools, and the emergence of data undercutting the claim that privatization would improve student performance has dampened much of the initial enthusiasm for school vouchers; however, the programs still have substantial political support. It remains to be seen whether that support can be maintained, and whether private schools accepting vouchers can improve their results sufficiently to justify continuation of these educational experiments.



 Covaleskie, J.F. 2007. “What Public? Whose Schools?” Educational Studies. Vol.42, #1.

Davis, Carl. 2016. “State Tax Subsidies for Private K-12 Education.” Institute on Taxation & Economic Policy. October.

Dynarski, Mark and Austin Nichols. 2017. “More findings about school vouchers and test scores, and they are still negative.” Economic Studies at Brookings: Evidence Speaks Reports. Vol. 2, #18, July 13.

Kennedy, Sheila Suess. 2001. “Privatizing Education: The Politics of Vouchers.” Phi Delta Kappan. Vol. 82, Number 6. February.

Shaffer, Michael B., John G. Ellis and Jeff Swensson. 2018. “Hoosier Lawmaker? Vouchers, ALEC Legislative Puppets, and Indiana’s Abdication of Democracy”  AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice. Vol. 14, No. 4 Winter











Up In The Air…

Every once in a while, the Indianapolis Star actually carries something we can consider news. (Not often: as I skimmed the paper the other day looking for actual information about the city, municipal and/or state government, area schools, or other coverage that could be classified as news, I came across several sports stories and an article–I kid you not–about a local family being reunited with their lost cat….)

One recent article that was newsworthy raised questions about privatization and a living wage.

The article began by profiling one of the baristas who works at the Indianapolis airport, noting that like most of the airport’s workers, she makes 10.50 an hour, and has to work two jobs in order to make ends meet.

In August, the City-County Council passed a proposal that sets a $13 “living wage” for city and county staff members. There are 365 workers earning $9.13 to $12.98 per hour who work for the city and county that will be eligible for pay increases.

But not everyone who works for the City will see a raise.

Reed, and nearly 100 cashiers, coffee baristas, janitors and service workers at the airport, argue that the city’s recent move to increase municipal workers’ minimum wage to $13 an hour should apply to them, too.

However, because the Indianapolis International Airport — ranked the top airport in the country five-straight years — has outsourced its labor to private companies through public-private partnerships, airport workers will not see those wage increases.

The article noted that airport privatization began with former Republican Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith in 1995.  Ours was the country’s first full outsourcing of an airport. Goldsmith declined to comment on the Star’s report, but was quoted on the subject from a previous article:

 “I wanted to market-test whether a private company that specializes in airport management, with access to worldwide technology and best practices, could produce more customer satisfaction, better airline relationships and more net revenue while holding down increases in passenger enplanement costs,” Goldsmith told Governing Magazine in April.

Goldsmith was a major proponent of what is incorrectly called privatization (real privatization occurs when government simply “sells off” a function to the private sector a la Margaret Thatcher in England, and is thereafter not involved). What we call privatization is really contracting out. Government is still responsible for supplying the service, but rather than employing people directly, it hires companies or organizations whose employees provide it on government’s behalf.

One of the arguments for these arrangements–sometimes called “third-party government”–has been that private companies could do the work more cheaply. More recent research suggests the savings are largely illusory when the costs of negotiating and monitoring the contracts are factored in. (Unlike government, private companies bidding on government contracts also have to pay taxes, which adds to their costs.)

To the extent savings are realized, it’s usually because the private sector employees are paid less than their government counterparts.

The public administration literature suggests that actual experience with contracting has diminished its attractiveness to government agencies. Management problems, loss of institutional competence and other unanticipated consequences have taken the bloom off that particular rose, and many services that were enthusiastically outsourced by proponents like Goldsmith are being brought back “in house.”

That national reevaluation isn’t likely to be much comfort to the underpaid airport workers who are doing public jobs that benefit their communities but not making the same wage that they would make if they were on government’s direct, rather than indirect, payroll.

What Is Public? A Clash of Legal and Policy Paradigms

Cullen Merritt, Assistant Professor, SPEA, IUPUI

Julia Carboni, Associate Professor, Syracuse University

Deana Malatesta, Associate Professor, SPEA Bloomington

Sheila Suess Kennedy, Professor, SPEA, IUPUI



Deciding whether to advance public policy goals through government’s own employees or a third-party surrogate can be a complex undertaking largely because legal and policy actors will ask two very different questions: lawyers will ask “did government or someone who can be considered a ‘state actor’ do this?” Policy analysts will ask “Who should do this, government or a private party or a third-party surrogate?” Notably absent from prior scholarship is consideration of how the concept of “public” has evolved in administrative and legal practice. We analyze the evolution of “public” as defined by the Executive branch in OMB Circular A-76 and the parallel evolution of the judiciary’s “public function” test in state action cases.  Comparison of the administrative and legal frameworks in this area offers important insights into the tension between the two.  Conceptual knowledge in this area is especially salient given the increasing reliance on contractors and private funders to perform what public administration scholars have long assumed to be exclusively public functions.



Public administration scholars have long sought to develop the concept of “public” (e.g., Bozeman 1987; Moulton 2009; Perry and Rainey 1988; Rainey, Backoff, and Levine 1976). Past efforts have focused on legal ownership (i.e., government versus private), modes of governance, and sources of authority (e.g., government regulation) as ways to distinguish between public and private actors. More recent efforts attempt to reconcile the judiciary’s understanding of state action with public administration scholars’ conceptions of public (Malatesta & Carboni 2014). This task is complicated by the fact that legal and policy actors are asking two very different questions: lawyers will ask “did government or a ‘state actor’ do this?” Policy analysts will ask “Who should do this, government or a private party or a third-party surrogate?” Notably absent from prior scholarship is consideration of the differences between legal and policy concepts of “public” and how those concepts have developed over time.

We analyze the evolution of public as defined by the Executive branch in OMB Circular A-76, and the evolution of the judiciary’s application of the “public function” test for purposes of the state action doctrine. OMB Circular A-76, “Performance of Commercial Activities”, is a federal document that provides guidance to those charged with determining how government will deliver and oversee “commercial” activities; the emphasis is on enhancing productivity and efficiency.  The Circular also provides guidance on distinguishing between commercial activities and “inherently governmental functions” that should be performed by government employees because they are “so intimately related to the public interest as to mandate performance by government employees.”

Though the courts do not have a singular definition of “public,” a subset of state action doctrine cases focus on the discharge of what the Supreme Court designates as public functions.  The state action doctrine is a legal principle used by the courts to distinguish between public and private actors for the purpose of assessing constitutional compliance.  Courts must decide whether conduct at issue is attributable to the state, making defendants potentially accountable to constitutional restrictions that apply only to state actors.  The jurisprudence of state action lacks clarity and consistency, and has been the subject of considerable legal scholarship and debate (Barak-Erez 1994; Carboni and Malatesta, 2014), but that debate has occurred with little or no cross-fertilization with either the policy literature or varying Executive branch directives.

This paper contributes to the growing literature on public-private distinctions.  Our contribution is unique, however, in that it traces the parallel historical evolution of “inherently governmental functions” and “public functions” as defined in administrative and legal contexts, respectively. Public administration scholars should be aware of both concepts, recognize the differences between them, and understand the implications of those differences for policy implementation. This issue is especially salient given the increasing reliance on contractors and private funders to perform what public administration scholars have long assumed to be exclusively public functions (e.g., operation of jails, state parks, and delivery of certain social services). We end the paper with a discussion of the implications resulting from the tension between inherently governmental functions and public functions for public administrators, with special emphasis on challenges in the contracting environment.



Inherently governmental functions are those activities that federal law and policy have required to be performed by government employees, rather than by contractors or other non-governmental actors.  Though public administration literature has addressed the definition of inherently governmental functions to a limited extent, it has neglected documentation of the gradual but significant changes in the federal definition over the years. Instead, the literature has focused upon issues of accountability (Gilmour and Jensen 1998; Kettl 1997), the ethical/moral nature of outsourcing (Verkuil 2007), outsourcing and discretion in implementation of inherently governmental functions (Rosenbloom and Piotrowski 2005), and methods of managing contracts for complex products and services that involve contractor discretion (Brown, Potoski and Van Slyke 2009).

The definition of an inherently governmental function was originally designed for the purpose of distinguishing between commercial functions, defined as those that could properly be outsourced to non-governmental employees, and functions that should continue to be performed by government’s own employees. Criteria for identifying inherently governmental tasks have undergone changes as public administration distinctions between what is public and what is private have evolved.  The resulting definitions are broad and vague, providing general parameters to assess whether a function should be considered inherently governmental or commercial.

Although the literature has not been focused upon the nature of inherently governmental functions, its treatment of those functions has evolved along with general trends in public administration research. Beginning with Wilson’s politics-administration dichotomy, traditional public administration has been concerned with issues of leadership and executive action in the public sector; the scholarship advocated a separation between politics and administration, improved efficiency in the public sector, and improved service production through better management (Wilson 1887).  Later work emphasized application of general management principles to the public sector in order to improve the efficiency and professionalism of public administration (Gulick, 1937, Urwick 1945). In the 1960s, public administration shifted from an emphasis upon rational actor models and began to consider the human aspects of decision making.  The New Public Administration that emerged during this period was largely a rejection of the traditional approach to public administration and, instead, prized social equity, citizenship, and the provision of services to citizens (Waldo 1968).  Beginning in the 1980s, scholars in the field embraced New Public Management, a model that advocated a return to general management theory and private sector approaches to service delivery.  Contracting out was seen as a way to cut red tape and make government more efficient (Osborne and Gaebler 1993).  More recently, there has been a shift back to consideration of democratic values, responsiveness to citizens, and effectiveness, and an emerging emphasis on governance by complex arrangements of actors rather than by public agencies (Bryson et al. 2014; Denhardt and Denhardt 2000; Stoker 2006).

Confounding administrators’ decisions about what may be properly contracted out are two interrelated definitions of inherently governmental functions in US federal law. Those definitions are detailed below.  Both begin with the same assumption: certain activities are the domain of government only, and others, considered commercial, can properly be outsourced. A detailed account of the changing understanding of “inherently governmental” from the executive branch perspective can be seen through examination of OMB Circular A-76 and policy letters meant to clarify and expand upon that Circular, namely the Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act of 1998.  The FAIR Act of 1998 defines an inherently governmental function as “a function so intimately related to the public interest as to require performance by Federal Government employees.”  The FAIR Act requires executive agency compliance with the longstanding OMB Circular A-76 approach to the definition of inherently governmental functions.  Its primary focus is on requiring executive agencies to use competitive contracting processes in order to produce the most efficient and cost effective result, particularly in areas where functions were previously discharged by government employees.  It also requires executive agencies to report on their commercial activities to both Congress and the public.

The FAIR Act does not specify an exhaustive list of functions that are to be considered inherently governmental; rather, it identifies inherently governmental functions as those that will “require either the exercise of discretion in applying Federal Government authority or the making of value judgments in making decisions for the Federal Government, including judgements relating to monetary transactions and entitlements.” (31 U.S.C, Section 501).  The Act recites that inherently governmental functions are those that: bind the United States federal government by contract, policy, or regulative activities; determine, protect, and advance US property and interests by military or diplomatic action or judicial proceedings; affect the life, liberty, or property of private individuals; control federal employees; or control federal property, including acquisition, use, or disposition. These broad parameters provide a framework for determining what is inherently governmental rather than specifying activities that must be considered inherently governmental.  This broad approach is consistent with the OMB Circular A-76 definition.

OMB Circular A-76, “Performance of Commercial Activities”, is a federal document intended to provide guidance on government delivery of activities deemed to be commercial. It is focused upon enhancing productivity and efficiency, and it offers guidance on making a determination of whether it will or will not be appropriate to rely on the commercial sector.  OMB Circular A-76 defines an inherently governmental function as “an activity that is so intimately related to the public interest as to mandate performance by government personnel.”  Notably, in A-76, inherently governmental functions are defined in contrast to commercial activities.  Like the FAIR Act, Circular A-76 does not provide a list identifying inherently governmental functions; it defines inherently governmental functions as those that require discretion in applying government authority or functions which require value judgments in making decisions on behalf of government, and leaves the task of specifying those functions to the agencies, requiring the creation of agency inventories: “An agency shall prepare two annual inventories that categorize all activities performed by government personnel as either commercial or inherently governmental.”

The Executive Branch’s definition of what should be considered inherently governmental has changed over time, as the following timeline illustrates.

1955                The Eisenhower Administration’s Bureau of the Budget (predecessor of OMB) establishes federal policy to obtain goods and services from the private sector.  This policy, Bulletin No. 55-4, was the first version of the Circular A-76 and states that the government would depend on the private sector for the performance of commercial activities.

1966                Bulletin 55-4 was developed into formal policy under the new name, Circular A-76, by the OMB. The document restated the policy and reiterated the principle that the government should not compete with its citizens.

1967                OMB Circular A-76 was revised under the Eisenhower Administration to provide formal guidelines for cost comparison procedures.

1970                Reorganization Plan No. 2 of 1970 and Executive Order 11541.

1979                Circular A-76 was revised to recognize that some functions must be performed by government personnel, but recognized that in other cases contractor performance may be cheaper and more effective. It considered whether an agency had a requirement to contract out non-inherently governmental functions.

1983                OMB A-76 was reissued to simplify the cost comparison process under the Reagan Administration.  Procedures were also set in place to reestablish the initial objective of the Eisenhower administration so that commercial activities previously performed by the government could be outsourced to private companies.

1990                Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 (CFO Act) was signed by the George H.W. Bush Administration to improve financial management by calling for the development and reporting of cost information and systematic measurement of performance.

1992                Office of Federal Procurement Policy Letter 92-1.

1993                Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) mandated performance measurement by Federal Agencies.

Statement of Federal Financial Accounting Concepts No. 1, “Objectives of Federal Financial Reporting”, stated that Federal financial reporting should provide useful information to assess the budget integrity, operating performance, stewardship, and control of the Federal Government.

1995                Federal Accounting Standards Advisory Board (FASAB) recommended standards which produce the Statement of Federal Financial Accounting Concepts No. 4.  Concept No. 4 provides standards for managerial cost accounting.

1996                Circular No. A-76 Revised Supplemental Handbook was produced, replacing the supplement issued with the 1983 Circular.  The handbook provided updated guidance and procedures for determining whether reoccurring activities should be contracted with commercial sources, kept in-house using Government facilities and personnel, or advanced through inter-service support agreements (ISSAs).  The revision added: (1) balance the interests of parties to make or buy cost comparisons, (2) provide a level playing field between public and private offerors, and (3) encourage competition and choice in management and performance of commercial activity.

1998                Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act of 1998 was introduced.  The FAIR Act required the head of each executive agency to submit a list of activities performed by federal government sources to the Director of OMB and Congress.  This helped prepare executive agencies to evaluate cost efficiencies using the A-76 strategy.

1999                OMB updated the Revised Supplemental Handbook.  Revisions outlined that the government can engage in inherently commercial activities if the function is critical to combat effectiveness, if mission effectiveness will suffer because of outsourcing, if a commercial source is not available or does not meet government requirements in a timely manner, if another Federal agency can provide the goods/services, if outsourcing would result in a higher cost to the government, or if items were inherently governmental in nature.

2001                Competitive sourcing through A-76 was identified as a major initiative by the George W. Bush Administration’s Presidential Management Agenda (this initiative was defined by debate/criticism over A-76 competitions; the private sector maintained that the public sector and its employees had the greater advantage under A-76). This included a goal of controlling 50% of the commercial activities operated by federal agencies completed via the competitive sourcing process.

2003                OMB issued the current version of A-76, superseding the prior Circular and any related guidance.  Revisions to OMB Circular A-76 made it friendlier to the federal worker by getting rid of presumption that all commercial activities in government belong in the private sector.  The goal was to get the best value for the citizen irrespective of who performs the work.  Revisions were intended to simplify, clarify, and standardize the execution of the A-76 process.

A significant amount of Circular A-76 competitions occurred between 2003 and 2008 in most Federal agencies.

2007                Public debate ensued over the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC in which living conditions and frustrations of soldiers were reported by the Washington Post.  Both administration and bureaucratic failures were concluded to be factors contributing to poor conditions.  The public debate led to the prohibition of the conduct of A-76 competitions at military medical facilities, which ultimately led to a moratorium on the conduct of A-76 competitions government-wide.  There was concern that some A-76 activities should be considered inherently governmental and should only be performed by federal employees in the DOD.

2008                Congress passed legislation that suspended ongoing public-private competitions for DOD (Section 325 of the National Defense Authorization Act [NDAA] for FY2008) until September 30, 2008.

2009                President Obama signed into law the FY2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act (Sections 212 and 737) which suspended all new, government-wide OMB Circular A-76 studies through FY2009. DOD can use only competitive sourcing to determine how to best accomplish work that is not currently performed by federal employees. The Omnibus Appropriations Act directs OMB to “clarify when governmental outsourcing of services is, and is not, appropriate, consistent with section 321 of the 2009 NDAA.”


2009                “Managing the Multi-Sector Workforce” Memorandum.  This memorandum “provides initial guidance to help agencies improve their management of the federal government’s multi-sector workforce” by requiring agencies to:

  • Adopt a framework for planning and managing the multi-sector workforce that is built on strong strategic human capital planning.
  • Conduct a pilot human capital analysis of at least one program, project, or activity, where the agency has concerns about the extent of reliance on contractors.
  • Use guidelines that facilitate consistent and sound application of statutory requirements when considering in-sourcing.


2010                Section 735 of Consolidated Appropriations Act FY2010 imposed a moratorium prohibiting certain federal agencies from initiating or announcing a new public-private competition under OMB Circular A-76 through Sept. 30, 2010.


Section 325 of the NDAA for FY2010 established a review and approval process from recommencing DOD private-public competitions.  Section 322 and 325 of NDAA FY2010 required GAO to assess DOD’s report on public-private competitions and its use of authority to extend the 24-month time limit on the conduct of A-76 competitions.

In Section 8117 of Department of Defense Appropriations Act of FY2010, Congress prohibited any spending of FY2010 funds to conduct public-private competitions under A-76.

2011                In Section 323 of Ike Skeleton National Defense Authorization Act for FY2011, Congress prohibited the Secretary of Defense from establishing quotas or goals for converting functions performed by DOD civilian employees to contractors unless based on research and analysis required by title 10 United States Code.

In the Consolidated Appropriations Act FY2011, federal agencies cannot initiate or announce new public-private competitions (Section 8103 of P.L. 112-10).

2011                Policy Letter 11-01, “Performance of Inherently Governmental and Critical Functions”, prohibited outsourcing “inherently governmental functions” and cautions against outsourcing functions “closely associated with inherently governmental.”

2012                Technical correction to Policy Letter 11-01 made “to clarify that the Policy Letter applies to both Civilian and Defense Executive Branch Departments and Agencies.”

In Section 733 of P.L. 112-74, The Consolidated Appropriations Act for FY2012 prohibited funds from being used to begin/announce a study of public-private competition.

Obama Administration FY2013 Budget Request sought to prohibit conduct of future public-private competitions under circular A-76.

2013                Prohibition is continued.

2015                Prohibition is continued.



In the United States, the legal system draws a constitutionally significant distinction between the public sector, defined as government and its agencies and officials, and the private sector, including civil society, defined as the multitude of nongovernmental, voluntary communal and religious associations through which individuals may act and connect. That distinction is a crucial, if unarticulated, element of most U.S. policy decisions, because only government actors can violate the American Bill of Rights, which limits government actions but not private behaviors. Based upon this particular understanding of the relationship of public and private behaviors, the American Constitution does not grant affirmative rights; it limits the power of the state to infringe private ones. This is not the case in many other Western democratic states, where it is common to have a constitutional system that both restrains and empowers government, and where social entitlements frequently are embedded in the constitution.

As a result of the United States’ approach, sometimes called “negative liberty”, a transfer of authority to nongovernmental agents is more than merely a management problem, as it is in many other countries, because constraints on the use of governmental authority are fundamental to the United States’ political and constitutional order (Kennedy 2012). “The Bill of Rights restrains only government action, making it essential that citizens and public managers alike be able to identify when government has acted” (Kennedy 2012, 1). The growth of contracting arrangements has made that identification increasingly problematic, blurring the boundaries between private and public action and making it difficult in many situations to determine whether a particular action or decision can fairly be categorized as governmental (Kennedy 2012). The result, in the opinion of many scholars, has been a loss of essential governmental accountability and thus legitimacy (Brown 2008; Metzger 2003; Kennedy 2001; Gilmour and Jensen 1998).

In making a determination whether state action is present, the courts will consider a number of elements, including but not limited to whether the function in question has traditionally been performed exclusively by government. As the practice of contracting out has grown, courts have increasingly been faced with cases in which the presence of state action sufficient to impose legal liability is less than clear-cut; accordingly, the question of what constitutes a public function for purposes of constitutional jurisprudence has changed over time. The inconsistencies of those changes have prompted calls for clarity from lawyers and legal scholars alike.

Current Status of the Relationship between State Action and Public Function

The Supreme Court has not discarded the idea that some governmental activities are in fact inherently “public functions.” It has, however, over time changed its approach to defining what those activities are, and not in a coherent fashion. In 1992, Justice Scalia began his state action analysis in the case of Lebron v. National Railroad Passenger Corporation with an observation that “It is fair to say that our cases deciding when private action might be deemed that of the state have not been a model of consistency.”  It is hard to disagree, and subsequent jurisprudence has not remedied the problem.

In the early 1940s, “the Court first expanded the meaning of state action to include private actors performing a government function (Smith v. Allwright 1944) and private action in which the state is significantly involved” (Peretti 2010, 273).  Since Marsh v. Alabama in 1946, however, the Court has been wary of too expansive an application of the state action doctrine in public function cases (Wirth 2014).  The evolution of legal doctrine defining what the courts will consider to be a public function can be seen not only when the Court finds a particular defendant a state actor, but also when it declines to do so.  For example, despite the common assertion that state action will be found when government exercises its coercive power or has provided significant encouragement of the decision at issue, in Blum v. Yaretsky, the Supreme Court declined to find state action even though the private nursing home’s medical personnel were obeying specific government regulations.  The ruling in Blum v. Yaretsky, among other cases, highlights the reluctance of the courts to deem private parties state actors.  Today, courts will typically find state action under the public function test when three conditions are present: (1) the activities have traditionally been performed only by government; (2) the private actor’s undertaking of the activity substantially replaces the government’s traditional performance of the function; and (3) the private activity is substantially aided by the state.

The Evolution of Public Function Application in State Action Cases

In a number of rulings, the Supreme Court has found private actors’ performance of governmental functions sufficient to make these parties agents of the state.  Judicial decisions focused upon state action and public function have centered on the First, Eighth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution although, theoretically, state action may be found when any constitutional provision is at issue.  The rather limited set of issues on which the Court has based its rulings in this area suggests that the Court is more likely to find state action when the liberty interest involves freedom of speech, cruel and unusual punishment, equal protection and due process, and the right to vote, as Table 1 illustrates.

Cases implicating civil rights, especially the right to vote, led to the birth of state action doctrine and the legal interpretation of public function.  In two foundational cases, the court held that conducting elections is “exclusively a state function and invalidated racial discrimination by non-governmental groups (political organizations or parties) who exercised effective control over the selection process of candidates in a primary or pre-primary process” (Hunter, Shannon, McCarthy 2013, 67).  In Smith v. Allwright (1944), the Democratic Party of Texas, a voluntary organization, was held to be a state actor when Smith, a black man, was denied the right to vote on the basis of his race.  Because the state of Texas governed the selection of party leaders at the county level, the practice of racial discrimination in elections was considered a violation of constitutional rights by the state.  In Terry v. Adams (1953), a private association denied a citizen the right to vote on the basis of race.  The Supreme Court upheld the precedent in Smith: if a private political party is authorized to influence the outcome of an election, which is a function of government, the private actor will be found to be an agent of the state subject to the Fifteenth Amendment.  Smith v. Allwright and Terry v. Adams established that most, albeit not all, election functions traditionally performed by government will be deemed to be public functions.

Court rulings grounded in the First and Fourteenth Amendments (and on two occasions the simultaneous violation of both) (Marsh v. Alabama 1946 and Amalgamated Food Employees v. Logan Valley Plaza 1968), further developed the state action doctrine following the early civil rights cases.  In multiple cases, court rulings extended the doctrine beyond government actions to encompass functions that the Court deemed “governmental in nature”.  In Marsh v. Alabama, a Jehovah’s Witness disseminated religious literature near a post office in Chickasaw, Alabama, a company town, without obtaining permission from the Gulf Shipping Corporation, the owner and operator of the town.  The question before the court was whether the State of Alabama violated Marsh’s constitutional rights under the First and Fourteenth amendments when she was arrested for distributing religious material.  In a 5-3 ruling, Justice Hugo Black emphasized that owners of privately held bridges, ferries, turnpikes, and the like may not operate them as exclusively private entities. Rather, because these facilities are built and operated primarily for the benefit of the public and are governmental in nature, they will be subject to state regulation and required to operate in a constitutionally appropriate manner. Even though Chickasaw, Alabama was a “company town”  owned and operated by a private corporation, the court emphasized the town’s numerous public attributes, including the fact that the town’s policeman was a deputy from the Mobile County Sheriff’s Department. In Evans v. Newton (1966), the Court built upon the precedent set in Marsh and held that prior governmental involvement in the operation of the public space compelled a finding of state action; the case revolved around the use and maintenance of a tract of land which had been willed to the City of Macon, Georgia in 1911, to be used as a park for white people only.

Freedom of speech was the central constitutional issue in Amalgamated Food Employees v. Logan Valley Plaza (1968).  The Court was faced with a case concerning a protest occurring at a shopping center that maintained common areas, including parking lots and driveways; the question was whether the premises were public or private for purposes of evaluating protestors’ Free Speech rights.  The Court concluded that individuals may peacefully protest based on their First Amendment rights, since the shopping center was the “functional equivalent” of the business district of a town.  Citing Marsh, the Court used the case to further clarify its application of the state action doctrine and the degree to which it will consider common areas sufficiently public to justify constitutional analysis.  The more an owner opens private property to public use, the more the owner’s private rights become limited by the rights of the individuals who use it (Amalgamated Food Employees v. Logan Valley Plaza).  Legal scholars consider the precedent set in Amalgamate Food Employees v. Logan Valley Plaza the high-water mark of the public function theory (Huss & Simmons, 1976); the difficulty of balancing the competing public and private rights involved becomes apparent in subsequent litigation. The Court would revisit the issue four years later in Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner (1972), and would reverse course in Hudgens v. NLRB (1976).

The court held in Lloyd Corp v. Tanner (1972) and Hudgens v. NLRB (1976) that exclusively private property is not public property just because the public is invited to use the property for its intended purpose. In addition, due process guarantees will not apply to a plaintiff in situations where the state merely acquiesces to private actions (Flagg Bros v. Brooks 1974); when an action is not traditionally or exclusively reserved to the state (Jackson v. Metro Edison 1974); and when no symbiotic relationship exists between the state and private party (NCAA v. Tarkanian 1988; Baker v. Kohn 1982; San Francisco Arts & Athletics v. US Olympic Commission 1987).

In West v. Atkins (1988), a Fifth Amendment case in which a private contractor provided health care services to prisoners for a state hospital, the contractor was operating under state authority and was found to be a state actor performing a public function. In Edmonson v. Leesville (1991), the Court held that the right to trial by a fair and impartial jury is a guarantee issued by government, and the fact that private litigants dictated race-based exclusions during jury selection process would not deprive the litigant of a that constitutional guarantee.  When private actors participate in the selection of jurors, they serve a vital function within the government and are agents acting under its authority.

Careful consideration of the issue of state action should be a critical component of decisions by government agencies to contract out. Both the government and the contractor need to understand whether and under what circumstances the contractor’s actions will be legally attributable to the government, and where the ultimate liability will lie in the event of a successful lawsuit by a third party.


[Table 1 about here]



“The development of a coherent and comprehensive understanding of state action begins with a multi-issue inquiry (ideally by all branches at all levels of government) into the nature of every transfer of government authority.” (Gilmour and Jensen 1998, 25).  Inquiry is necessary at three points—when the decision to delegate authority is made, during administrative oversight, and during judicial review. OMB Circular A-76 is concerned with the first point, the initial decision to contract out. It outlines a broad set of criteria to determine whether or not a function is appropriate for outsourcing or should be discharged by government through its own employees.  A-76 approaches that inquiry based on issues involving discretion and authority, rather than history.   In contrast, the courts’ “public function” test is applied to a situation in which that initial determination has already been made. Courts must determine whether the private entity employed by government was functioning as a state actor, justifying a finding of state action for the purpose of settling claims arising out of action that has already occurred.  In the process of assessing the public function test in order to determine the presence of state action, the courts look at several factors, including whether the activity in question has traditionally been performed exclusively by government.

These two approaches, the administrative and the legal, can complement each other, with A-76 providing guidance to public administrators as to whether or not something is a government function – even if it has been contracted out (state action can be attributable to private actors). Even if the Executive Branch approach to defining public function differs from the more limited instances in which the courts will find state action, recognizing the circumstances within which the courts will assess liability will inform contract negotiations and drafting, and avoid inadvertent assumptions of liability.  The courts have established a high bar for determining which functions are “public functions” and for determining when a contractor will be found to be a “state actor.” Understanding this jurisprudence may help both government and those with whom they contract to insulate private actors from constitutional claims that would apply if government performed the same functions (Buchanan et al. 1997), without inadvertently depriving citizens of constitutional protection.

Furthermore, encouraging those acting on behalf of the Executive Branch to familiarize themselves with what the courts have held in order to rationalize their respective definitions of public function is also important; when government is engaging in outsourcing, those responsible need to understand how their administrative decisions will be reviewed and interpreted in the event of litigation.  What makes this particular inquiry difficult, and may account for what seems to be an existing disconnect between the Executive Branch definition and the legal doctrine, is the lack of specificity of the former and the lack of clarity of the latter. The legal scholarship critiquing the Court’s state action jurisprudence and pointing to the practical problems raised by the incoherence of that jurisprudence is copious. When we counsel public administrators to follow the guidance of the courts, we assume that the courts are actually offering that guidance. When the various tests applied by different Circuit Courts differ from each other and from cases decided by the Supreme Court, guidance is hard to come by.

As Brown’s (2008) law review article concluded, “Balancing the United States Supreme Court’s tests with individual circuits’ applications of these tests, all while carefully excluding inapplicable precedents” (581) is a difficult analytical task facing courts in modern state action cases.

Losing the court’s favorability in recent decades, due in part to the judiciary’s utter confusion with this area of the law, modern courts are hesitant to authoritatively find state action. The state action doctrine is slowly descending into utter confusion, where private parties remain unaware of what conduct subjects them to Constitutional restrictions, and courts are unclear as to the appropriate state action standard. The time has come for the United States Supreme Court to declutter the state action doctrine by combining tests, shedding unnecessary terminology, demystifying the state action doctrine, and giving the lower courts a tangible standard with which to work (581)

The lower courts would not be the only beneficiaries of such clarification. Public administrators and private contractors could base contracting decisions on accessible and consistent guidelines, and (in an ideal world) citizens could be confident that protection of their constitutional liberties was an important and conscious element of governmental contracting decisions.

Clearly, the advancement of public policy objectives is “not the exclusive province of government, nor is government the only institution having public obligations, [though clearly] government has a special role as a guarantor of public value” (Jorgensen and Bozeman 2007, 373-374).  As a guarantor of inherently governmental functions and public functions and primary contributor to the public value that emerges from these activities, government will benefit from resolving the tension between administrative and legal conceptions of public.


Cases cited


Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649 (1944).

Marsh v. State of Alabama, 326 U.S. 501 (1946).

Terry v. Adams, 345 U.S. 461 (1953).

Evans v. Newton, 382 U.S. 296 (1966).

Flagg Bros., Inc. v. Brooks, 436 U.S. 149 (1978).

Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co., 419 U.S. 345 (1974).

Blum v. Yaretsky, 457 U.S. 991 (1982).

Rendell-Baker v. Kohn, 457 U.S. 830 (1982).

San Francisco Arts & Athletics v. United States Olympic Committee, 483 U.S. 522 (1987).


Hudgens v. NLRB, 424 U.S. 507 (1766.)

National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Tarkanian, 488 U.S. 179 (1988).


West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42 (1988).

Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Co., 500 U.S. 614 (1991).

Amalgamated Food Employees Union Local 590 v. Logan Valley Plaza, Inc., 391 U.S. 308 (1968)

Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner, 407 U.S. 551 (1972)




Barak-Erez, Daphne. 1994. A State Action Doctrine for an Age of Privitization. Syracuse L. Rev. 45:1169.


Bozeman, Barry. 1987. All organizations are public: Bridging public and private organizational theories. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Brown, Julie K. 2008. Less is More: Decluttering the State Action Doctrine” Mo.L.Rev., 73:561.


Brown, Trevor L., Matthew Potoski, and David M. Van Slyke. 2009. Contracting for complex products. Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 20:i41-i58


Bryson, J. Crosby, B, and Bloomberg, L. 2014. Public Value Governance: Moving Beyond Traditional Public Administration and the New Public Management. Public Administration Review 74:445-456.


Bryson, John M., Barbara C. Crosby, and Laura Bloomberg. 2014. Public value governance: Moving beyond traditional public administration and the new public management. Public Administration Review 74: 445-456.


Buchanan, G. Sidney, Charles L. Black Jr, William J. Novak, and Gillian E. Metzger. 1997. State Action and the Public/Private Distinction. HOUS. L. REV. 1367:1248


Denhardt, Robert B., and Janet Vinzant Denhardt. 2000. The new public service: Serving rather than steering. Public administration review 60: 549-559.


Gilmour, Robert S., and Laura S. Jensen. 1998. Reinventing government accountability: public functions, privatization, and the meaning of “state action”. Public Administration Review 247-258.


Gulick, Luther. 1937. Notes on the theory of organization, In Luther Gulick & Lyndall Urwick  (Eds.),  Papers on the science of administration, 3-13. New York: Institute of Public Administration.


Hunter Jr, Richard J., John H. Shannon, and Laurence McCarthy. 2013. Fairness, Due Process and NCAA: Time to Dismiss the Fiction of the NCAA as a Private Actor. J. Pol. & L. 6:63.


Huss, Richard B. and Richard J. Simmons. 1976. Hudgens v. NLRB: Protection of Shopping Center Picketing under the Constitution or NLRA? , Industrial Relations Law Journal (1976): 632-655.


Jørgensen, Torben Beck, and Barry Bozeman. 2007. Public values: An inventory. Administration & Society 39:354-381.


Kennedy, Sheila S. 2001. Privatizing education: The politics of vouchers. Phi Delta Kappan, 82:450-456.


Kettl, Donald F. 1997. The global revolution in public management: Driving themes, missing links. Journal of Policy Analysis and management 446-462.


Malatesta, Deanna, and Julia L. Carboni. 2015. The public–private distinction: Insights for public administration from the state action doctrine. Public Administration Review 75:63-74.


Metzger, Gillian E. 2003. Privatization as delegation. Columbia Law Review 1367-1502.


Moulton, Stephanie. 2009. Putting together the publicness puzzle: A framework for realized publicness.” Public Administration Review 69:889-900.


Osborne, David and Ted Gaebler. 1993. Reinventing Government; How the Entrepreneurial Spirit is Transforming the Public Sector. New York: Plue.


Peretti, Terri. 2010. Constructing the State Action Doctrine, 1940–1990. Law & Social Inquiry, 35:273-310.


Perry, James L., and Hal G. Rainey 1988. The public-private distinction in organization theory: A critique and research strategy. Academy of management review 13:182-201.


Rainey, Hal G., Robert W. Backoff, and Charles H. Levine. 1976. Comparing public and private organizations. Public administration review 36:233-244.


Rosenbloom, David H., and Suzanne J. Piotrowski. 2005. Outsourcing the constitution and administrative law norms. The American Review of Public Administration 35:103-121.


Stoker, Gerry. 2006. Public value management: a new narrative for networked governance? The American review of public administration 36:41-57


Sullivan, Harold J. 1987. Privatization of public services: A growing threat to constitutional rights. Public Administration Review 461-467.


Urwick, Lyndall. 1945. The Elements of Administration. New York: Harper and Brothers.


Verkuil, Paul R. 2007. Outsourcing sovereignty: Why privatization of government functions threatens democracy and what we can do about it. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Waldo, Dwight. 1948. The Administrative State. New York: The Ronald Press Company.


Wilson, Woodrow. 1887. The study of administration. Political science quarterly 2:197-222.


Wirth, Stephen K. 2013. State Action, Government Speech, and the Narrowing Spectrum of Private, Protected Speech. Cornell L. Rev., 99, 485.














Table 1


Supreme Court Rulings on State Action Cases involving Public Functions


Year Case Finding of state action? Public Function
1944 Smith v. Allwright yes elections
1946 Marsh v. State of Alabama yes public space (in company-owned town)
1953 Terry v. Adams yes elections
1966 Evans v. Newton yes public space (desegregation of park)
1968 Amalgated Food Employees v. Logan Valley Plaza yes public space (trespass on private property)
1972 Lloyd Corp. v. Tanner no public space (trespass on private property)
1974 Flagg Bros., Inc. v. Brooks no public space (trespass on private property)
1974 Jackson v. Metropolitan Edison Co. no utility
1976 Hudgens v. NLRB no public space (trespass on private property)
1982 Blum v. Yaretsky no state subsidized healthcare
1982 Rendell-Baker v. Kohn no education
1987 San Francisco Arts & Athletics v. United States Olympic Committee no national interests
1988 National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Tarkanian no due process
1988 West v. Atkins yes state subsidized healthcare
1991 Edmonson v. Leesville Concrete Co. yes civil trial jury selection


A Hoosier Cautionary Tale

First Kansas. Now Indiana. One by one, the pillars of conservative fundamentalism are failing real-world tests.

Under then-Governor Pence, Indiana negotiated a much-ballyhood 35-year “public-private partnership” with the Spanish firm Insolux Corsan to build and maintain a portion of Interstate 69, between Bloomington and Indianapolis. The project has dragged on and on, making trips between Bloomington and Indianapolis slow and treacherous. (I know this from personal experience; faculty of IU routinely make the trip between campuses, and I’ve done my share of cursing while in transit.)

The original contract called for a completion date of October, 2016; that date has been pushed back four times amid media reports suggesting that the state’s private partner was as slow in paying subcontractors as it was in building the highway. Now, it appears the contractor is going bankrupt. The Indianapolis Star reports that the state “intends to take control of the troubled I-69 project from Bloomington to Martinsville as the public-private partnership used to finance and build the highway crumbles.”

It is a GOP article of faith that the private sector is always more efficient and more competent than government, and that contracting out–privatization–saves money. In the uncongenial place called the real world, it seldom works out that way. The collapse–or “crumbling”–of this particular partnership joins a long line of failed privatization schemes, some scandalous and corrupt, many simply ineffective and expensive, that have ended up costing taxpayers more than if government had done the job.

This isn’t to say that contracting out is always a bad idea. As I’ve said repeatedly, the issue isn’t whether to work with the private sector, but when and how. Public officials need to carefully evaluate proposed contracting arrangements: is this something government routinely does, or an unusual task requiring specialized expertise that the agency doesn’t have? If the motive is saving money, how realistic is that? (After all, private entities have to pay taxes, and their bids will reflect that expense.) Does the contracting agency have the expertise needed to properly negotiate the contract and monitor the contractor? Have all the risks been weighed, and due diligence exercised?

Do the officials making the decision recognize that contracting with a third party won’t relieve the government agency of its ultimate responsibility to see that the project is properly completed or the service is properly rendered?

Are there situations where public-private partnerships are both appropriate and competently structured? Of course. The Brookings Institution recently reported on the success of the Copenhagen City and Port Development Corporation in revitalizing Copenhagen’s waterfront. I was particularly struck by this description of that effort:

The approach deploys an innovative institutional vehicle—a publicly owned, privately run corporation—to achieve the high-level management and value appreciation of assets more commonly found in the private sector while retaining development profits for public use.(emphasis mine)

Two elements of this particular partnership stand out: (1) it was formed to execute a lengthy, difficult and highly complex project requiring skills that few municipal governments have in-house; and (2) it distributed risk and reward in a way that ensured taxpayers would benefit financially from the project’s success.

In contrast, virtually every American contract I’ve seen has socialized the risk and privatized the reward; that is, taxpayers have assumed the risks of cost overruns, unanticipated problems and project failures, while the private contractors have reaped the lions’ share of the profits.(Trump’s infrastructure plan–to the extent it exists–would take that formula to new heights. Or lows…)

I69 and the Indianapolis parking meter fiasco are just two of the more recent examples of what happens when privatization is a mantra–a semi-religious belief–rather than one of several strategically deployed tools in the public toolbox.

Personal P.S. Thanks to all of you who posted good wishes for my husband’s surgery. All went well, and he’s home (with a very rakish temporary eye patch).

Another Assault Begins…

The Hill reports that Trump has rolled back the Obama Administration’s education measures intended to ensure adequate teacher preparation and assess school performance.

The teacher preparation regulations included training requirements for educators, and the school accountability rules were meant to gauge schools’ effectiveness.

The rules drew sharp criticism from Republicans, who argued states should have more control over the classroom. This falls in line with the philosophy of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Republicans lawmakers earlier this month voted to strike down the two rules through the Congressional Review Act, which gives them the power to roll back certain regulations. In the Senate, the special procedure prevents the use of the filibuster.

Trump signed the bills Monday, not only eliminating the Obama-era education rules, but also prohibiting future presidents from issuing similar rules.

Repealing these rules will “encourage freedom in our schools,” Trump said.

Yes indeed. States like Indiana should be free to bleed resources from public schools without having to comply with pesky rules from Washington requiring that they actually evaluate the performance of the (primarily religious) schools that are receiving those resources.

Parents should be free to use taxpayer money to send their children to private schools without some bureaucrat requiring confirmation that the people teaching in those schools actually know anything about subject-matter or pedagogy.

Evidently, the respect for “freedom” shown by Trump and DeVos doesn’t extend to the freedom of taxpayers to demand accountability for enterprises being supported by our tax dollars.

In fact, a discussion about what elements of our social and physical infrastructure should properly be provided by citizens’ tax dollars is long overdue.

We have bridges failing and roads that look like those of third-world countries. We barely–and grudgingly– support public transit. Our tattered and insufficient social safety net is under unremitting assault by politicians who demean Americans who rely on any aspect of it, while ignoring their own dependence on the public purse. (Yes, Paul Ryan, I’m looking at you–but you have a lot of company.)

The public school system is a key element of our social infrastructure. At its best, it provides skills enabling children to escape poverty, a “street corner” through which diverse citizens come to know and understand each other, and an introduction to civic competency.

Do all public schools meet that standard? No. But we have an obligation to fix those that don’t–just as we have an obligation to fix our decaying bridges. Instead, the Republican response is to privatize education and let private interests build–and toll–our roads and bridges. That approach is a rejection of the very definition of an infrastructure–utilities that serve all citizens.

Trump and the GOP don’t want to fix either our schools or our bridges; their definition of “freedom” is enriching private interests at the expense of the public good.