Pre-K and the Economy League, the influential nonprofit guiding City Hall

Universal pre-K has become the signature goal of the first few months of Mayor Jim Kenney’s administration. For the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia, the subject is old news.

This nonprofit began studying pre-K years ago and in early 2014 helped create the coalition Pre-K For PA. When Kenney began publicly discussing the benefits of pre-K, he cited their research. He also touted the importance of exports in his inauguration speech, another subject the Economy League has been studying.

For the Economy League, it’s vindication in a way. The purpose of their organization is to address key challenges to improve the Philadelphia region’s future. It’s all the better when city leaders pay attention to the research — research the Economy League claims to be nonpartisan and unbiased, not affected by the city and industry leaders with whom it regularly communicates.

“We can sit in the middle,” said Nick Frontino, managing director for strategy and operations at the Economy League, “and play kind of a liaison in a way nobody else in the region can.”

The equivalent of the Economy League exists in almost every big city in the country. Pittsburgh, for instance, has the Allegheny Conference. Philadelphia’s began more than 100 years ago. Back then, it was called the Bureau of Municipal Research, and the goal was civic advocacy. The founders were the heavyweights of Philadelphia industry. They wanted city government to run with the efficiency of the private sector (and if you know much about Philly politics in the first half of the 20th century, you know they weren’t overly successful).

Josh Sevin, the Economy League’s managing director for regional engagement, describes the work back then as almost looking over the shoulders of the City Hall staff. An example of a headline you’d find on the pamphlets they’d sell for 10 cents: “Don’t be a sluggard in politics.”

After switching its name to the Pennsylvania Economy League in the 1950s, the group continued its government watchdog work, pretty much until about 15 years ago. Then, the work shifted to analysis of economic issues. The name was changed to the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia in 2007.

Universal pre-K hasn’t been the only subject it has analyzed and saw lead to change. In 2000, the Economy League released a study on brain drain and came up with tangible data of how important college graduates would be to the Philly region over the next 20 years. After the study, the Economy League helped bring together organizations approaching the issue from various areas. It led to the formation of Campus Philly.   

The Economy League did some early research on the benefits of the Schuylkill River Trail and the need to connect I-95 with the Turnpike. Construction began on that project in 2014. The Economy League was also studying Philly’s still-ongoing pension crisis as early as 2008.

The ideas come from the Economy League’s staff of nine and its sizable board of more than 60 people representing some of Philadelphia’s blue chip companies, firms and nonprofits. The Economy League gets contributions from many of those same organizations, as well as major companies: Deloitte, IBM and Ballard Spahr, for instance.

Frontino and Sevin said the group also keeps communication open with City Hall. Sevin said the Nutter administration sought the Economy League to complete a report on the economic effects of hiring returning incarcerated citizens. Asked how the Economy League could stay nonpartisan while working with city leaders and influential business leaders and receiving money from them, Frontino said their reputation comes from years of using data-based research to come up with ideas but letting others in the government and business sector hash out how to enact them.

“We try to stay in our lane,” he said. “That’s where we recognize we would go beyond our purview.”

David Thornburgh, the president and CEO of Committee of Seventy and a former executive director of the Economy League, said “You develop the data that’s well-researched and well-presented. You tell the story based on more than the political spin. You do that over time and you build up credibility. … You have to be conscientious of what you’re taking money for and from whom and try to build some balance into that. You don’t want to be perceived as some subsidiary of a cause or faction or political group.”     

Universal pre-K provides an example of the way the Economy League operates. City Hall has been holding hearings about whether a soda tax should be used to finance it, while the Economy League has moved into the background.

“The rubber is meeting the road with pre-K,” said Sevin. “And we’re not going to be, ‘here’s the way we do it.’”

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