This Labor Day, Pioneer Institute Highlights Importance of Vocational Training

As Americans celebrate the achievements of our nation’s workers this Labor Day, Philanthropy Roundtable is proud to support organizations that eliminate barriers to upward mobility, expand opportunity and reward hard work. I recently sat down with Jim Stergios, executive director of Pioneer Institute, a think tank that envisions a nation where people can prosper and society can thrive because of “world-class options in education, health care, transportation and economic opportunity, and where our government is limited, accountable and transparent.” 

The interview below has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: You lead Pioneer Institute (PI), a Massachusetts-based public policy think tank that concentrates on education, health care and economic opportunity. What is your mission and what role do you play in the broader public policy landscape? 

Stergios: Pioneer’s mission is to advance innovation across multiple states in education, health care and economic opportunity through best-in-class research, advocacy and legal action.  

Our education team works in multiple states with the goal of preparing students to be good citizens and economically successful. Our strategic focus is on innovations, especially the expansion of public (charter and vocational-technical) and private school choices, not on fixing broken public systems.  

Our health care strategy focuses on the life sciences. In the last half century, the U.S. shed 40% of its hospital beds, largely because of the rise in outpatient care made possible by massive medical advances. Our life sciences team works in seven states and Washington, D.C., to promote transparent pricing, fend off price controls and expand adoption of pricing strategies that will make cutting-edge treatments more affordable.  

On economic opportunity, we run on dual tracks, defending Massachusetts’s economic competitiveness and piloting in several states, for now, a program on the catalytic role of immigrant entrepreneurs in the U.S. economy as a way of building an understanding of capitalism. 

Q: Over the last 30 years, PI has focused on policies that expand opportunities for all people. Where do you see the biggest opening for making gains in this area?  

Stergios: In these increasingly politically charged times, organizations must focus on research, partnerships and legal strategies. That’s why we started the Pioneer Public Interest Law Center. Its job is to create precedents that will have immediate and lasting impact. Currently, it is focused on equal treatment for special needs students in private schools, enforcement of state obligations to teach U.S. history and civics, and the defense of immigrant entrepreneurs harmed by unnecessary government regulations. 

Pioneer has seen significant progress in recent years, in Supreme Court cases like Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue, where our amicus brief was cited in Justice Alito’s concurring opinion, and Carson v. Makin. Since these decisions, Pioneer’s research and advocacy on the ground in 10 states assisted local activists in securing legislation expanding choice.  

Q:  While vocational training in schools has fallen out of favor over the last several years, you have focused on it quite a bit, authoring a book on this issue called “Hands-On Achievement: Massachusetts’s National Model Vocational-Technical Schools.” Why have you focused on this topic? 

Stergios: Education reformers usually focus on either charter or private school choice. Massachusetts vocational-technical schools are public schools of choice that were ignored for too long. The commonwealth’s 1993 Education Reform Act required vocational-technical students to pass the same tests as their peers in other public schools to earn a diploma. That, along with a system in which students alternate weekly between academic and vocational education, has created a network of schools that outperform the state’s comprehensive high schools, ensure that students graduate with strong work skills and credentials, and have dropout rates a third of the statewide average.  

That is especially impressive because Massachusetts’s vocational-technical schools educate more special needs and low-income students than other public schools. No state has gotten vocational-technical education right the way Massachusetts has. These graduates have a choice of pursuing further education or entering jobs that offer family-sustaining wages—without college and the debt that often accompanies it. Importantly, expanding stronger vocational programs in other states will address labor shortages in the trades and technology manufacturing and services sectors. 

Q:  How have your strategic partnerships helped PI expand vocational and technical school efforts outside of Massachusetts?   

Stergios: Pioneer is partnering widely to extend the impact of our vocational-technical school work. Through our longstanding partnership with the Massachusetts Association of Vocational Administrators, we were able to connect with national industry organizations such as SkillsUSA and Advance CTE.  Working through our chambers of commerce, we developed contacts with peers in our target states (Kentucky, New Hampshire, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas). Employers we’ve connected with understand the deficiencies in federally funded workforce development programs. Finally, we work with State Policy Network affiliates to disseminate our work nationally. 

Pioneer also has hosted webinars on “Hands-On Achievement,” garnering over 14,000 views in our target states, California, Florida, New York and Washington. The book generated national print articles in outlets like The Washington Post, The Washington Times, IndustryWeek, Public News Service, radio coverage, media attention in target states and think tank podcasts and articles. Our mini-documentary, “Training Our Future Workforce: Voc-Tech Success,” was watched over 84,000 times. 

Q:  The recent Supreme Court decision ending affirmative action in higher education will impact students throughout the country. Why is focusing on K-12 education important in creating opportunities for all students?   
Stergios: Our focus remains on K-12. Much of the racial tension generated by affirmative action results from the failure of our monolithic public schools. Affirmative action in higher education admissions is itself a clear indictment of the success of America’s public K-12 schools. If traditional public schools were doing their job, such an “end of pipe” workaround would never have been necessary. This is, in part, why the vocational-technical model is vitally important. We need more K-12 models that bridge achievement gaps.  

Q:  What are the ongoing challenges or pitfalls for PI and organizations like yours that aim to address expanding opportunity through education? How are you tackling these issues?   
Stergios: I’m very hopeful about education. In 2000, few would have believed that by 2023, district schools in the U.S. would lose 10% of their market share, as measured by enrollment, to charters and private education models. Instead of responding by improving the product, the two national teachers’ unions are doubling down on divisive, self-serving rhetoric.  

Pioneer is part of a group of organizations supporting change in states where that is possible. Only the threat of even greater losses in market share will force traditional public schools to change direction and focus on providing educational opportunity to all students. 

For more information about this organization or others providing Pathways to Opportunity, reach out to Philanthropy Roundtable Program Director Erica Haines.  

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