Book Review: Privatization: No More Excuses

Published August 1, 2001

Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships

by E.S. Savas
New York, NY: Chatham House Publishers, 2000
$34.95 pb; to order call 212/529-4686
or visit

The spread of personal computers and word processing software has enabled every second-hander of ideas to write a book, or even five or six books. As a result, we are inundated with books that often are poorly reasoned and edited and not worth reading. The literature on school reform is more burdened by this surfeit of second-rate literature than any other area of public policy.

E.S. Savas’s new book, his first since 1987, makes apparent the wide divide between a true expert and the many amateurs who play at debating the privatization of public services, including schooling. Privatization and Public-Private Partnerships is the result of 30 years of fieldwork by the man who co-invented the word “privatization,” was the first to implement it, and has devoted a lifetime to its study and promotion.

It is a pleasure to read a book that is written clearly and with brevity, with a minimum of jargon and a focus on precision and accuracy. Savas defines terms, plots goods and services according to their exclusion and consumption properties, lists steps and options and pros and cons in straightforward tables, and more. The footnotes show the author’s total mastery of the literature and will serve as the best bibliography on privatization now in print. The book’s tone combines a scientist’s objectivity with a genuine respect for the diverse values and concerns of his audience.

Chapter 10, on “Reforming Education and Privatizing the Welfare State,” makes a potent case for school vouchers. The usual objections are raised and answered with unusual confidence and simplicity, something writers wrapped up in the parental choice movement find difficult to do. Savas’s conversation with Myron Lieberman, mentioned in a footnote, clearly paid off as this leading choice thinker’s distinctions are carefully incorporated. It’s a tour de force in fewer than 20 pages.

Opponents of school vouchers–whether from the left or the right ends of the political spectrum–will benefit considerably from this clear and compelling explanation of what privatization is, how it works, evidence of its success in a wide range of fields and countries, and why vouchers are the most appropriate form of privatization to apply to schooling. Commenting on one of his tables, Savas writes “the voucher system and the market system stand out with almost unbroken strings of positive attributes.”

This book is highly recommended.

Joseph Bast is president of The Heartland Institute, the publisher of School Reform News. He can be reached by email at [email protected].