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The Privateers: How Billionaires Created a Culture War and Sold School Vouchers

Harvard Education Press (Sept 10, 2024)

A deep-dive investigation of education privatization that reveals voucher programs as the faulty products of decades of work by wealthy patrons and influential conservatives.


In The Privateers, Josh Cowen lays bare the surprising history of tax-funded school choice programs in the United States and warns of the dangers of education privatization. A former evaluator of state and local school voucher programs, Cowen demonstrates how, as such programs have expanded in the United States, so too has the evidence-informed case against them. 


This thought-provoking work traces the origins of voucher-based education reform to mid-twentieth-century fears over school desegregation. It shows how, in the intervening decades, a cabal of billionaire conservatives supporting a host of special political interests—including economic libertarianism, religious choice, and parental rights—have converged around the issue of education freedom in an ongoing culture war. Through deliberate policymaking, legislation, and litigation, Cowen reveals, an insular advocacy network has enacted a flawed system for education finance driven largely by dogma.


Far from realizing the purported goal of educational equity, privatization is failing students and exacerbating income inequality, Cowen finds. He cites multiple research studies that conclude that voucher programs return poorer academic outcomes, including lower test scores on state exams, especially among students who are at greater academic risk because of their race, their religion, their gender identity, or their family’s income. Continued advancement of these policies, Cowen argues, is an assault on public education as a defining American institution.


“Just as decades of careful empirical studies have converged to expose school vouchers as the drivers of the worst academic declines ever recorded, states are investing more in voucher schemes than ever before. How could this be? Veteran researcher Josh Cowen explains that it was precisely the dismal failure of vouchers to improve schooling that led America’s libertarian billionaires to turn to inflamed Christian nationalists—voters who reject facts—to dismantle our public schools. This vital, infuriating book is a must-read to learn who is harming our kids and our democracy and why, and exactly how they’ve managed to inflict such damage.”


~Nancy MacLean, author of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America


The Privateers is essential reading for anyone who cares about public education, and it illuminates the broader threat to our democratic institutions. Self-interested donors have enlisted unscrupulous ‘experts’ to steer funding away from public schools, despite far inferior outcomes. The same Council for National Policy networks replicate this deception on many fronts, undermining climate science, public health, and voting rights. Privateers shows us how.”


~Anne Nelson, author of Shadow Network: Media, Money, and the Secret Hub of the Radical Right


The Privateers offers a meticulously researched challenge to the conventional understanding of voucher legislation’s success in red states. With forensic precision, Cowen uncovers the deeply organized right-wing movement that orchestrated significant policy shifts in the face of growing research evidence of vouchers’ academic shortcomings. To understand the intricate web of actors driving voucher policies, The Privateers is essential reading.”


~Jennifer L. Jennings, professor of sociology and public affairs and director, Education Research Section, Princeton University

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