Abstract: What do American schools, prisons, welfare agencies, and social service programs have in common? These institutions have been largely or exclusively public in terms of their funding, operations, and identities over the past forty years. Yet they now face major experiments in privatization. Public dollars increasingly can be spent purchasing private schooling, and private companies have entered the business of managing public schools. Public dollars flow through contracts with private corporations, nonprofit organizations, and religious groups to run public schools and prisons and to deliver welfare-to-work and other social services. What happens to the scope and content of public values when public commitments proceed through private agents? This question demands historical context. The particular trends in privatization are new, and yet they highlight the longstanding and complex interactions between public and private social provision in this country. A variety of for-profit and nonprofit organizations provide education, health care, day care, elderly care, and other services through public subsidies. This Article seeks to avoid the partisan and polarized debates over privatization by examining its potential for both good and disturbing effects against the backdrop of historical practices, evolving public norms, and vital public accountability. Part of the Symposium: Public Values in an Era of Privatization.