The Pioneer Institute: Privatizing the Common Wealth

A report from Political Research Associates

State Representative
Somerville, MA.

Ideas are powerful. The relentless, well-funded, and well-connected efforts of the Pioneer Institute to “change the direction of the wind” politically in Massachusetts are well documented in this provocative report by Paul Dunphy with Mark Umi Perkins.

It is very difficult even for those actively involved in Massachusetts politics to understand why a historically liberal state has elected Republican governors and adopted many right-wing policies. The work of the Pioneer Institute in shaping the discussion provides some of the explanation.

Dunphy and Perkins document many examples of policy initiatives begun and reinforced by this think tank. Pioneer has provided the intellectual framework and studies that give respectability and credence to the ideas of privatization and “doing less with less.”

But ideas alone do not have the power to persuade. Dunphy and Perkins make it clear that Pioneer’s board members, staff, and supporters held powerful positions in the Weld/Cellucci/Swift administrations, often in revolving-door arrangements with Pioneer and with corporations that benefited from administrative decisions they and their colleagues made.

Being in positions of state power gave these advocates many advantages, because governors, their staffs, and their appointees can shape discourse by their daily rhetoric as well as by their actions. They provide not only intellectual leadership, but also make legislative proposals that shape the debate and sometimes propose, pass budgets, veto items from legislative budgets, and make major administrative decisions.

A striking example of Pioneer Institute influence over state policy implementation is the case of charter schools. Once charter school legislation was passed, the Board of Education, dominated by Pioneer allies, had broad discretion over how to implement it and how many, and which, charters to grant. They seemed particularly to favor large schools, many of which are run by the same few for-profit companies. Pioneer allies, in their state administrative roles, could make decisions that had an enormous effect on the fortunes of their future employers or ventures.

For example, before leaving the governor’s staff to start Advantage Schools, Steve Wilson wrote the regulations defining “average per pupil expenditure,” which determine how much charter school tuition is deducted from local school budgets. He decided to average in all costs, including those for students in high-cost programs like vocational education, special education, and bilingual education. No charter schools offer vocational education or bilingual education, and they have few high-cost special education students. This formula disadvantages district school and advantages charter schools.

It is unclear why the state’s media has been so uncritical of Pioneer’s studies and information, but it may largely be because of a relatively under-funded counterforce in the form of progressive think tanks and political operatives. For whatever reason, it is amazing that the Boston Globe, for example, accepts without question Pioneer’s claims that charter school students are lower-income than those in “sending” districts. This claim is based on the notoriously unreliable method of phone surveys. It is contradicted by information in Pioneer’s own publications, based on Department of Education data on subsidized school lunches—data that is gathered with legally enforceable penalties.

The success of some Pioneer ideas and proposals can also be explained by the support of wealthy individuals and corporate funders. This report spells out the sources of some of that financing.

Some Pioneer ideas have attracted far less political support, probably because they had no support from financially powerful backers. For example, Pioneer has produced a number of well-researched studies arguing against public financing of convention centers and sports arenas as wasteful. These have been intellectually convincing—but have not inspired the kind of fundraising success or the political support that charter schools have. Perhaps the corporate community, believing that convention centers and stadiums are in its interest, has been unwilling to support Pioneer in this case.

Privatizing the Common Wealth provokes many questions, and suggests many new lines of thought. For example, to what extent is the Institute’s agenda driven by ideas, and to what extent by its funders’ interests or self-interests? Were the Republican governors’ elections a result or a cause of Pioneer’s success? In the face of Republican victories in gubernatorial races, why has the Massachusetts Democratic Party retained control of the state legislature? Why has that legislature adopted so many of the Republican education policies promoted by the Pioneer Institute? (The Pacheco bill, well-documented here, is the best example of resistance to Pioneer’s privatization proposals.) How deeply have Pioneer’s ideas penetrated public opinion, or is their influence primarily felt among the media and political elite? How does their work reinforce, or how is it reinforced by, national media and philosophical trends toward valuing the market above all as the determinant of social goods?

Ironically, because this report so convincingly documents the Pioneer Institute’s crucial role in moving political and policy debate in Massachusetts to the right during the past thirteen years, the Institute might well use it in its own fundraising activities. It should also be used to demonstrate the need for funding countervailing forces. The only state-level think tank with even a remotely similar breadth in Massachusetts is TEAM, the Tax Equity Alliance of Massachusetts, which has a narrower focus and a far smaller budget. Public policy in the Commonwealth would benefit greatly from a more balanced and spirited contest of ideas and information that is less tilted to the right.

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