“It’s not a Republican or Democratic issue,” he said. “It is ultimately something that will make the difference between our region being successful or not being successful.”
This fall, just weeks before voters elect a new governor, Cohen steps down from his position as board chair of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. He took the job vowing to make “adequate school funding” the Chamber’s top priority. At a crucial moment, he helped organize business leaders in support of Rendell’s education investment plans.
“When David Cohen made [funding] his major focus … it educated us in a sense as to why this is … worth supporting,” said Tony Bartolomeo, CEO of the engineering firm Pennoni Associates, and a Chamber board member. “It gave us an appreciation for how the entire system really works.”
But as Cohen prepares to move on, with state revenues dropping, legislative proposals to increase them stalled, and a new administration yet to arrive, the Chamber appears poised to focus less on the push for broad funding increases and more on local efforts to help students join the workforce.
“Money has gotten much tighter,” said Dan Fitzpatrick, president of Citizens Bank and a Chamber board member. “What we can do in the meantime is take what we are doing and really customize and target it.”
Fitzpatrick says that means stepping up Chamber support for internships and other workforce development projects – worthy goals, but modest compared to those Cohen articulated in his inaugural speech as Chamber chairman.
“Philadelphia remains a ‘tale of two cities’,” Cohen said in October 2008. “One populated by a majority White middle and upper class – and the other by persons of color still waiting for the opportunity to participate in all that Philadelphia and this nation have to offer. … We must elevate funding for education to a place at least equal to, if not above, such core Chamber priorities as tax reductions.”
Cohen made that speech having already helped assemble a team of business leaders to support Rendell’s most ambitious education budget.
In late 2007, the legislature’s costing-out study identified a $4.4 billion shortfall in state funding for schools. Rendell followed with a proposal for a major K-12 spending increase, a formula for funding individual districts, and a six-year plan to close the spending gap. As the legislature took up the budget, Cohen and a group of Chamber members backed it.
Many of those executives had already been working with Lisa Nutter at Philadelphia Academies Inc., supporting career-related high school projects. She and Cohen helped turn the group, dubbed the “CEO Ambassadors for 21st Century Skills,” into the Chamber’s unofficial education advocacy arm.
“We needed industry leaders who could become true advocates for education,” said Lisa Nutter. The group included Bartolomeo, Fitzpatrick, Rosemary Turner of UPS, Joe Frick of Independence Blue Cross, and others. “There was a lot of talk about, ‘What do we want to do? How do we want to align our resources to support things that work?’ David was part of those conversations,” Nutter said.
Their first activity was legislative lobbying with Mayor Michael Nutter around Rendell’s education budget, she said.
Cohen served on the front lines, doing “every one of our visits with us” to Harrisburg, recalled Lori Shorr, the mayor’s chief education officer.
The pitch was carefully crafted. “It wasn’t about a moral obligation,” Lisa Nutter said. “The industry leaders were able to talk with very hard facts about what it means when, as a system, we produce 17-year-olds who are not ready for work.”
That was the spring of 2008, and Cohen and the executives were just one of many groups supporting Rendell’s plans. Unions, student activists, and school districts large and small took up the same task. That summer, Rendell signed a bill that included $274 million in new dollars, a funding formula that factored in local need, and a promise of increases to come.
Cohen won’t take any credit. “We were sort of the new player in the coalition, and I would hope that we did have an impact, but I can’t claim credit for the Chamber,” he said. “The costing-out study made a compelling case … and a number of public education advocates fought hand-to-hand combat.”
Others say Cohen’s support was critical. “Our legislators listen to the business community,” said Carol Fixman of the Philadelphia Education Fund. “And they listened especially well to leaders as significant as David Cohen.”
Joan Benso, head of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children in Harrisburg, says the business advocates helped convince legislators that the funding shortfall did real economic injury to the state. “Far too often, policymakers say, ‘They just want more money so they can pay teachers more money,’” said Benso.
Since then, the Chamber has lobbied each year for increases in education funding. Cohen calls it “the number one item on our Harrisburg agenda.”
But the coordinated advocacy of 2008 has not been repeated. Mayor Nutter and the Chamber have made their lobbying visits separately. This year, while legislators battle over K-12 funding in Rendell’s waning days, the CEO Ambassadors have stayed focused on their local initiatives.
Bartolomeo says the next governor can count on hearing from the Ambassadors. The minimum goal will be to protect the gains already made. “We as a business community don’t want any backsliding,” he said.
But Fitzpatrick cautions that the Chamber will have to consider the state’s limited resources when it comes to education funding. “We know there will be some steps backwards, given how severe this economy has been,” he said, adding that the Chamber has other costly priorities, most notably transportation upgrades.
In Harrisburg, Joan Benso says the business community’s support has helped give traction to the core ideas from Rendell’s plan. But she expects the political football of education to remain very much in play. “We’re in grave financial circumstances,” she said. “It’s going to be a tough fight.”
The funding formula is vulnerable, Benso noted. “The legislature revisits that law on an annual basis. They could choose to blow it up.” There is no groundswell in the legislature – nor a push from the Chamber – for new taxes to sustain the funding increases, which so far have largely come from federal stimulus dollars that are about to expire.
In the face of all this, Cohen says that both he and the Chamber will remain committed to supporting “adequate funding” for schools, in keeping with the recommendations of the costing-out study.
But as he steps down, he can’t say that the Chamber will commit to a particular formula or dollar targets. “We don’t have our plans yet for the next budget,” he said. “There’s going to be a new governor, and a whole new discussion.”