Dismantling Public Education One Brick at a Time
The Privatization Strategy of Pioneer Institute and Betsy Devos
On Wednesday, September 12 a federal judge ruled Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s delay of Obama-era regulation of for-profit colleges as “unlawful.”1 The regulations forgive federal student loans from “misleading, deceitful, and predatory” lending programs at for-profit schools. DeVos and the Department of Education issued numerous delays to the regulations while simultaneously publishing their own proposed replacement rules that would limit the types of lenders that would qualify for borrower repayment, a process that the judge ruled as “procedurally defective.” DeVos’s “unlawful” actions are just one example of how President Trump and DeVos have sought to change course of federal education policy in favor of private interests. With DeVos, a wealthy manufacturing heiress, wife to the Amway heir, and businesswoman from Michigan2with a long track record of supporting public funding for charter and religious schools3 as Education Secretary, charter school expansion has also been a top priority for Trump’s administration. And though the Trump administration continues to polarize the GOP, their focus on charter schools has drawn in supporters from across the right, particularly from Massachusetts charter school advocate Pioneer Institute.
Pioneer Institute bills itself as an “independent,” “non-partisan” think tank,4 but a closer look tells a different story. In fact, Pioneer collaborator and author Robert Eitel5 was among DeVos’s close advisors who strategized delaying the Obama-era regulations concerning for-profit colleges. Eitel himself was formerly the vice president at two large for-profit school operators.6 Pioneer Institute is a member of the State Policy Network, a national network of conservative think tanks whose main agenda items have included a systematic attack on the rights of working people7 and privatizing public education.8 Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a former Pioneer Institute executive director and a vocal advocate for charter schools,9 appointed another former Pioneer executive director James Peyser as his Secretary of Education.10 Pioneer serves as a powerful gatekeeper to a national conservative movement to defund public schools in favor of private, for-profit, and religious schools.
Cultivating support for vouchers
Back in 2010 when Pioneer Institute Executive Director Jim Stergios defended Pioneer as ideologically neutral, he also insisted that Pioneer “support[s] no political party” and that in fact, “members of both parties” are involved with Pioneer. Despite these statements, it is clear that Pioneer’s highest priority issues are fundamentally aligned with positions that GOP politicians have taken, especially President Trump.
The Pioneer Institute has been careful to make very little comment on the Trump administration, but when Trump made a major move in support of charter schools and against public teachers unions, Pioneer spoke up. After President Trump nominated Betsy DeVos to become his Secretary of Education, Stergios issued a cautious but supportive op-ed in USA Today, outlining parts of her agenda that he agreed with and urging her adopt some of Pioneer’s own policy positions.11 Pioneer and DeVos also agree that education is no place for worker empowerment. Pioneer was an avid supporter of the federal Janus v. AFSCME that successfully limited the dues that public sector unions can collect from workers who benefit from their contracts, otherwise known as right-to-work.12 DeVos connections to Michigan’s GOP establishment and her ardent anti-union philanthropy helped usher in Michigan’s own right-to-work law in 2012, which applies to both public and private sector workers. In Michigan she also condemned other forms of collective action levied by public school teachers to improve their working conditions: in 2016 when Michigan teachers staged simultaneous sick days to protest the poor health conditions of their school, DeVos wrote an op-ed stating teachers should not be allowed to stage sick-outs.13
However measured Stergios would have wanted Pioneer to appear, some of Pioneer’s most essential policy positions in support of charter and religious schools have been promoted by DeVos. As a way to bolster waning interest in Catholic and private schools, Pioneer has advocated for programs that are directly in line with the Trump administration. Pioneer supports three different options for publicly subsidizing Catholic and private school tuition: educational tax credits,14 vouchers for tuition, and tax credits for third party donors who provide scholarships.15 DeVos has long been an advocate for vouchers and tax credits for religious school tuition both as a conservative private donor in Michigan16 and now as a member of Trump’s cabinet. In the lead-up to Trump’s 2017 tax bill, Trump and DeVos were publicly supportive of a federal scholarship tax credit program. The program would bypass billions of public dollars from public schools directly to paying for private school tuition.17 Though the final version of the bill that passed did not contain such a program, it did include a clause that allows families to withdraw up to $10,000 tax-free annually from 529 savings accounts for “public, private, or religious elementary or secondary school.” Critics argued that among other parts of the bill the adjustment to 529 regulations may only benefit wealthy families, as most of the families that are able to retain 520 accounts are wealthy.18
Exploiting religious rights to privatize public schools
Early in Stergios’ tenure as Executive Director of Pioneer Institute in 2010, a reader of Boston.com questioned Pioneer’s ideological neutrality after Stergios announced he would have a column about school privatization on the Boston Globe’s website. Stergios responded that Pioneer is founded by a “conservative” figure and advocates for “frugal government” and “market approaches,” but claimed Pioneer has “no opinion on social issues.”19 Despite this assertion, Pioneer has spent significant resources defending public funding for Catholic schools throughout most of Stergios’ tenure using morally subjective arguments, and defends the social and moral contributions of exclusively Catholic doctrine. Betsy DeVos, a longtime advocate of religious education, has also been vocal about federal and state laws that block funding for private and religious schools and has taken measures to roll them back.
In January 2018, Pioneer debuted a documentary, “Big Sacrifices, Big Dreams” on the “bigoted” state laws that block public funding for Catholic schools. Pioneer promoted the documentary heavily on Facebook20 and Twitter21 and to date it is their most popular uploaded video on their YouTube page.22 They hosted multiple screenings exclusively at Catholic schools during National Catholic Schools Week and encouraged readers and members to host their own screenings.23 The film features a former Vatican ambassador, Catholic school officials, and Catholic families calling for the repeal of the “un-American” Blaine amendments that restrict federal funds from being allocated to religious schools.24 In May 2018, DeVos publicly condemned the very same Blaine amendments that exist in 36 states other than Massachusetts. Much like Pioneer, DeVos called the amendments the “‘last acceptable prejudice’ that should be stamped out once and for all.”25 At its core, Pioneer’s documentary elevates Catholicism without significantly considering other faith-based education systems in their arguments. DeVos, also a supporter of Christian schools in particular, has been questioned about her Department’s commitment to root out discrimination in religious education.26 Though religious liberty is foundational to our society and respected by progressives and conservatives alike, public resources should not favor one religion over another nor should it favor those who consider themselves religious over those who don’t. Religious liberty recognizes and respects the multiplicity of value systems that people may hold while a separation of church and state guarantees that no one value system may dominate another in the public realm. As Fred Clarkson of Political Research Associates states, “[r]eligious freedom and civil rights are complementary values and legal principles necessary to sustain and advance equality for all.”27
In addition to DeVos, Pioneer aligns itself with organizations that take very clear stances in support of a conservative political agenda. Pioneer’s opposition to the Common Core, a federal effort under former President Obama to create a standard K-12 curriculum across the nation’s districts, has been a leading issue for Pioneer in recent years. In 2016, they partnered with the D.C.-based American Principles Project (APP) to release a report showing the Common Core is at direct odds with Catholic schools’ institutional mission of “spiritual transformation.” APP is a national conservative organization notorious for using “religious liberty” to defend anti-women, anti-abortion, and anti-LGBTQ policies.28 The APP identifies the greatest threat to society as the “aggressive assault from the intolerant progressive sexual and gender ideology” that seeks to “eliminate fundamental differences between men and women.”29 Most recently, the APP championed the U.S. Supreme Court decision to favor a baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, calling the charges against him “anti-Catholic bigotry.”30 Their report with Pioneer, which reads more like a statement of opinions rather than Pioneer’s supposed data-driven policy recommendations, makes its central argument that the Common Core’s focus on preparation for career-ready skills prevents Catholic schools from teaching students a “virtuous life and a fuller understanding of the human experience.” Without Catholic values in public schools, Pioneer and APP claim that a “moral vacuity” will increase, leading to a rise in “out-of-wedlock births” among other consequences.31 The relationship between a child’s parents has little to do with advocating for a “frugal government” or any sort of “market-based approaches” Pioneer claims to support.
Pioneer as also held numerous conferences in recent the years along the same ideological lines as their work with APP and DeVos’s own agenda: calling for an end to “bigoted” school funding policies32 and proposing publicly-funded voucher systems to subsidize private and religious school tuition.33 One of their most frequent collaborators on these conferences is the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the D.C.-based law firm that pushed to extend religious rights to corporations in the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court case involving the craft store Hobby Lobby. The firm successfully defended the store’s owners as within their religious rights to deny their employees full contraceptive coverage as obligated under the Affordable Care Act.34 Much like with APP, Pioneer has chosen a key partner that is well-versed in weaponizing the idea of “religious liberty” to meet conservative political and moral ends and to further push for the privatization of public schooling.
Back in DeVos’ home state of Michigan, one of the many right-wing benefactors of DeVos’s fortune was the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Their former senior vice president Joseph Overton developed the idea of the Overton Window, which theorizes that gradual shifts in public opinion can normalize a policy that initially is received as extreme.35 Pioneer Institute’s own founder Lovett Peters stated that the only way to “chang[e] the intellectual climate” is to “take one brick away at a time.”36 Pioneer Institute has spent decades attempting to build an identity as a non-partisan think tank that supports “data-driven” policies that favor “individual liberty” and “limited” government.37 In effect however, Pioneer has been on the forefront of influencing public opinion, providing a self-proclaimed politically-neutral vehicle to ease the intellectual acceptance of principles and policies held by right-wing politicians and organizations including Betsy DeVos. Such a role has been particularly effective in the historically blue state of Massachusetts that has elected increasingly more Republicans to office. As constitutional rights continue to be framed and reframed as justifications for policies that auction off the public schools to the highest bidder, it’s crucial to recognize who is truly being given space to create those frames and what they may be inching toward.⬛