Liberal State, Libertarian Policies

By Paul Dunphy and Nikhil Aziz

This is liberal Massachusetts, right? Home to a strong labor movement, a congressional delegation destined for the Democratic hall of fame, and the birthplace of public education in America.

Yet, a handful of conservative ideologues, closely aligned with a local libertarian think tank, are dominating every aspect of Massachusetts’ education policy and pushing an agenda of privatization that is driving up costs even while weakening public oversight. And they are getting away with it largely unquestioned.

You might not have heard of the think tank—the Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research—but you have almost certainly heard of its agenda: attacking bilingual education, opposing voluntary integration, promoting high stakes testing, and almost single-handedly advancing charter school and voucher initiatives.

How has the Pioneer Institute come to wield such influence over the Bay State's schools?

For starters, the chair of the state Board of (public) Education is the former executive director of Pioneer. Another former executive director serves alongside him on the Board. The head of the Department of Education's Office of Charter School Accountability arrived at the job directly from Pioneer. These appointments continue the revolving door pattern between Pioneer and the Administration, first established during William Weld’s governorship. Several of the institute's wealthy and powerful board members have orchestrated a high-price lobbying effort to push their legislative agenda.

And Pioneer itself, backed by the deep pockets of such conservative foundations as the Walton (as in Wal-Mart) Family Fund, churns out dozens of reports, studies, and surveys that the media has obligingly turned into news.

What makes this hostile take over of education policy even more outrageous is the abiding hypocrisy underlying many of Pioneer's positions.

While the institute claims to favor competition, three of its former executive directors, serving in the Weld Administration, ingeniously crafted the regulations not only to exempt charter schools from many of the mandates facing the public system (for instance, serving severely disabled students) but to accord them financial priority over public schools, largely insulating them from the uncertainties of the state budget process.

Meanwhile, millions of dollars in contracts between charter schools and for-profit management companies, one of which was founded by Pioneer associates, have been awarded with no competitive bidding whatsoever. This from the folks who claim that, "the public benefits from competition."

While praising the dynamics of the "free market," Pioneer operatives have steered huge private subsidies to charter schools enabling them to out spend the neighboring public system by hundreds of dollars per student, even as conservative groups continue to charge that public schools are "over-funded."

While pushing standardized testing as tough love for public school kids, Pioneer's people lead the call for vouchers to private and religious institutions that want nothing to do with MCAS.

And what about accountability? Pioneer-backed policies have moved hundreds of millions of tax dollars from the oversight of democratically accountable school committees, city councils, and town meetings behind the closed doors of privately run, often for-profit charter schools.

As millions are siphoned off to charters, municipalities face the unpleasant reality of either higher property taxes or leaner educational programs. Wherever there are charter schools, from Martha's Vineyard and Boston, to Fitchburg, Worcester, and Northampton, public school kids pay the price of privatization.

Our recently published report, The Pioneer Institute: Privatizing the Common Wealth, from the Somerville-based organization Political Research Associates, elaborates on these contradictions and conveys a detailed picture of an organization largely unchallenged in its assault on the public sector in this state.

The policy debate in Massachusetts is dangerously out of balance, allowing assertions advanced by conservatives to push initiatives harmful to working and middle class families, indeed, to all taxpayers and to the very ideal of a commonwealth. Progressive and moderate groups need to be watchful.

Social justice is being sacrificed to privatization, Pioneer-style, with its toll of weakened public institutions, reduced public oversight, and added public cost.



Paul Dunphy is a policy analyst with Citizens for Public Schools and a veteran journalist, who authored The Pioneer Institute. Nikhil Aziz is the associate director at Political Research Associates, and editor of its periodical, The Public Eye.

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