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It’s hard to imagine conversations about education in Pennsylvania without Donna Cooper at the table.

Cooper was the architect of the run-up in state spending on public education under Gov. Ed Rendell, serving inside government as his secretary of policy and planning for eight years.

Now, she is on the outside looking in. As executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY), the Philadelphia-based advocacy group, she is on a mission to increase funding for public education, especially at the Pre-K level.

Going forward, she also is likely to be at the center of the debate on finding a fair way for Pennsylvania to dole out the $10 billion a year it distributes to local school districts in various subsidies.

Cooper is a forceful advocate, firm and unbending on the issues that she supports.

She praises City Council and Mayor Michael Nutter for putting new revenues for schools on the table, “about $96 million over four years,” but in the same breath expresses disappointment in Council’s inability to pass a sales-tax plan for Philly schools.

She is critical of the budget cuts imposed on school districts across the state by Gov. Tom Corbett. And she blames Corbett for getting rid of a school funding formula, which she helped to create when Rendell was governor, which called for gradual but significant increases in the amount of money spent for basic education.

The formula determined how much it would cost to educate the average student versus a student with special needs, from a low-income family, an English language learner, etc. In the Rendell years, it resulted in a run-up of state aid to education.

Cuts too deep

Then, when Corbett took office in 2011, he undid the gains. To Cooper’s way of thinking, the cuts made at the state level were too deep to make up with increased local support in Philadelphia. Even if more money is forthcoming from either state or local government, “We are simply talking about getting back to a very low bar in terms of quality education in Philadelphia,” Cooper says.  “It really won’t advance the ball significantly for children.”

Cooper, with a background in public policy, government and advocacy, said PCCY is “really like a perfect harmonious convergence of what I could do.”

Since she arrived at PCCY about a year ago, she has gotten rave reviews. “She’s been phenomenal,” said Leslie Winder, board president of the nonprofit. “The experience, the knowledge, the context that she brings into this position has really helped to increase the profile, not just of the organization, but of the work that we do.”

Cooper, 55, grew up in Oreland, Pa. And before she’s pressed further, she notes that, “I was a public school kid.” She went on to study accounting at Ithaca College, and later earned a Master’s degree in administration from the Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania.

Political tradeoffs

In addition to serving under Rendell during his time as governor, Cooper served as Rendell’s deputy mayor for policy and planning for Philadelphia for three years. She created and led the Greater Philadelphia Works program, which sought to help single mothers on welfare reach self-sufficiency. And she was a senior fellow with the Economic Policy team at the Center for American Progress before taking the job at PCCY.

When asked to give a comment about Cooper and her work during his administration, Rendell responded, “One of my favorite subjects.”

“Donna had a hand in everything,” Rendell said. “I often called her, both in Harrisburg and Philadelphia, the conscience of the administration. While we were playing the game of politics, taking legislation and getting it through the legislature, Donna kept on our backs so that we wouldn’t, as we made political tradeoffs, duck the legislation. She always made sure the legislation was designed to achieve the primary goal.”

Driving force

Rendell began rattling off educational improvements that had Cooper’s “fingerprints on them,” as he put it.

Higher standards for graduation. “Donna’s drive.”

More use of Advanced Placement (AP) credits, paying for the poorer schools to do AP courses. “That was Donna’s driving force,” Rendall said.

Investing $200 million so that there was a laptop in every high school classroom in Pennsylvania. “That initiative was really Donna’s.”

Apart from her role in helping to develop the school funding formula under Rendell, Cooper backed the Rendell plan to use federal stimulus money for the schools. That decision has resulted in criticism because that money ran out, resulting in a huge hole in the Education Department’s budget. When Corbett became governor, he decided not to fill it with state money. State aid to the schools declined substantially.

Cooper defended the decision to use the federal money, saying that the Rendell administration was clear in explaining to school districts that the money was time-limited and should be used for expenses such as computers and teacher training.

Regardless, the Rendell years were marked by a substantial increase in state aid to education. In fact, the increases in state spending for schools from 2008-2010 were the largest annual increases occurring in the country in each of those years, according to Ron Cowell, president of The Education Policy and Leadership Center. “We were making important strides forward,” he said. “It was understood to be necessary to fill a gap created by insufficient state resources at the time.”

Defining issue

Now, working on the outside, Cooper is pushing for early-childhood education to become “the defining issue in the governor’s race.”

Cooper said that the research proves the need for Pre-K programs, especially for poor and working class children. Without it, she said: “they’re less prepared for school than their counterparts and it is difficult and expensive to make that up later on in life.”

The notion of providing Pre-K education has bipartisan support. Finding the money in these tight times is another matter.

PCCY is one of nine organizations behind the Pre-K for PA campaign, which advocates for investing in high quality pre-kindergarten education for every three-year-old and four-year-old in the state.

“For us it’s a key pathway out of poverty. It’s a key pathway to increasing high school graduation. It’s a key pathway to ensuring that children are more likely to have decent jobs, stay out of jail, have productive lives,” Cooper said. “So given that we have limited resources and the research says that the cheapest place to invest is early childhood, it makes a lot of sense to do so.”

PCCY has positioned itself as a key player in education advocacy in the city and beyond. It’s a proponent of early childhood education, K-12 funding for public school districts, both in Philly and the suburbs, charter school accountability, and, of course, restoring the cuts made to urban and suburban public school districts.

To that end, Cooper has been leading the effort to organize key players in education in the suburbs to create alliances to press for more money for public education. Such an alliance makes sense politically. Suburban voters have clout and leadership positions in the state legislature are filled by suburban Republicans.

Very present

“For us, we’re out there going to school board meetings, meeting with parents, very present in as many suburban communities as we can be to really say that we’re in this together because the Philadelphia delegation and the suburban Philadelphia delegation need to work together to create a political coalition that demands strong support for public education,” Cooper said.

And Cooper, with various connections to political officials and other advocates, also has allies in some of Philadelphia’s toughest education activists, like Helen Gym, of Parents United.

Calling herself “a Donna fan,” Gym wrote in an email, “I have great admiration for Donna Cooper and the experience, energy and knowledge she brings to Philadelphia.” Though Parents United focuses its efforts locally, and PCCY is a statewide organization, Gym wrote, “There is clearly significant overlap here and we expect to collaborate on enactment of a game-changing statewide funding formula as well as a number of other issues.”

Perhaps Cooper’s greatest achievement going forward could be her ability to increase the visibility of PCCY and its work.  Over time, she will become the face of PCCY, especially if it emerges as a significant force in advancing its issues.

“I have found in this short period of time, particularly with the transitions at the school district, that we, as an organization, are being heard more, and I do credit a fair amount of that to Donna’s ability to connect the organization and message with the right people,” Winder said.