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An essay titled Liberal State, Libertarian Policies, published on the web site of Political Research Associates, (PRA, a progressive think tank in Somerville, Massachusetts), raises disturbing questions about education policy under four Republican gubernatorial administrations in Massachusetts. The authors, Paul Dunphy and Nikhil Aziz, charge that "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." They also suggest that free market rhetoric maybe cloaking some self-dealing by insiders who crafted hands off regulations for charter school companies for which they subsequently were employed. The authors say that Pioneer and its associates are "getting away with it largely unquestioned."  Well, thanks to the hard work and persistence of Dunphy, Aziz and PRA, those days are over.

The essay is a timely follow up to an earlier PRA investigative report, The Pioneer Institute: Privatizing the Common Wealth.

The Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research  has influenced many areas of state education policy. But, the authors say that Pioneer "almost single-handedly" advanced charter school and voucher programs.

How do they do it? In part by a revolving door between the Pioneer Institute, Republican administrations and private companies holding no-bid charter contracts. For example, the authors report that "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."  

"While the institute claims to favor competition," write Dunphy and Aziz," 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," they conclude, "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'

The result of all this may be less anything resembling the free market, so much as crony capitalism.

"Pioneer operatives," Dunphy and Aziz charge, 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.'"

They call Pioneer and other free marketeers "hypocrites" for pushing for standardized testing for public school kids, while seeking "vouchers to private and religious institutions that want nothing to do with MCAS" (Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System) the controversial state standardized test.

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

There is a question that is long overdue with regard to the financing and management of charter schools. In a time of budget crises, why are municipalities and states subsidizing private, for-profit academies that benefit a very few, at the expense of everyone else?  

Struggles over school privatization are being waged all over the country,of course. But the impetus behind some of it, just as in Massachusetts, is a national network of state-level conservative think tanks that have sprung up, while national policy in many areas "devolved" to the states during the Reagan and Bush administrations. I documented this in an earlier report for PRA titled Takin' It to the  States:  The Rise of State-Level Conservative Think Tanks. Pioneer, like the others, is bankrolled by rightwing business interests and foundations. Pioneer's supporters, as Dunphy and Aziz note, include the "Walton (as in Walmart) Family Fund."

This network, and the various privatization schemes they promote, deserve far more scrutiny than they have generally received from the media, and public officials who treat their studies as legitimate scholarship and earnest public policy proposals.

Originally posted to Frederick Clarkson on Sun Jan 23, 2005 at 12:26 AM PST.

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