Donna Cooper may be best known on campus for calling for Penn to pay $1.8 million to the City of Philadelphia as part of a Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, but her speech Tuesday night in the Terrace Room of Claudia Cohen Hall took a different focus.

A 1997 Fels graduate who is the Pennsylvania Secretary of Policy and Planning and Executive Director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, Cooper spoke about how increased government oversight could improve public school students’ performance.

Cooper cited her experience serving in the Ed Rendell’s cabinet in Philadelphia and then Harrisburg. She also drew on research about student proficiency rates, which shows that students who must meet county-wide, state-wide or national standards, are generally more proficient.

She also addressed Pennsylvanians’ resistance to imposing state-wide standards and removing schools from the control of small school boards in favor of larger city or county governments. Cooper recalled that it was easier to pass legislation that would affect large business interests like coal and natural gas than to replace traditional smaller school districts with county-wide districts.

When she and others suggested replacing smaller districts, those interests acted like “we should have been chained — we should have had our thumbs nailed to a wall and chained,” she said.

Cooper’s talk also addressed how the political process affects student success. She stressed the importance of policy makers and elected officials thinking outside the political process and making better use of education research. She recalled how she was mocked at a Harrisburg roast for compiling binders of research about education best practices and distributing them to lawmakers.

“In the political process it’s very hard to have an abstract conversation about preschool,” Cooper said. ”[Lawmakers] live and breathe in reference to the political process.”

The Government and Politics Association, a relatively new non-partisan political organization on campus, planned the event. The organization has multiple branches including the Polybian society, which hosts weekly discussions, and the political publication The Spectrum.

Co-president and co-founder Louis Capozzi, a College junior, said the Association invited Cooper because she would express a progressive point of view, something not often found at Penn.

“Donna Cooper is a rare example of someone who is a progressive and has been politically powerful,” Capozzi said “We believe [our mission] means not just finding people on the right side of the political perspective but are more to the left than Penn politically.”

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