50CAN to Merge with Rhee’s StudentsFirst

(Photo: Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times)

(Photo: Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times)

50CAN, the education reform group inspired by the Connecticut-based advocacy group ConnCAN, has announced that it will be merging with the national group StudentsFirst, founded by the controversial previous Washington D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee.

After launching in New Haven in 2005, ConnCAN has spent much of its time lobbying the legislature for an expansion of charter schools in the state. The effort then began to reach other states in 2011 after a trial run in Rhode Island under the spin off non-profit organization called 50CAN. Marc Porter McGee became the group's first president after leaving his role as chief operating officer for ConnCAN.

"We view this merger as a significant advancement for education improvement efforts. It means two strong organizations will come together to have an even greater impact for kids," said Jennifer Alexander, chief executive officer of New Haven-based ConnCAN. "And while we are excited about this news, ConnCAN will remain independent and will continue working as hard as we can to make sure all children in Connecticut have access to the great public education they need and deserve."

ConnCAN has previously worked in Connecticut to support Governor Dannel Malloy's education reform initiatives that have been both celebrated and criticized, including overhauls to the way teachers earn tenure, how they are fired, and his idea to begin linking teacher evaluations to test scores.

In 2011 Rhee announced on Oprah that she would be creating the group StudentsFirst in an effort to advance reforms on a national level as an "interest group solely for kids."

Rhee aired television commercials in the state in 2012 in support of Malloy's education bill and also spoke on the steps of the state Capitol during a rally.

While the new group will be referred to as 50CAN, previous StudentsFirst state chapters will continue to be known by that name, except within Pennsylvania where the work overlapped.

Although both organizations have worked toward change on the state level through charter school expansion and an overhaul of teacher tenure laws, the merger suggests an increase to the importance of state policy-making, writes Mark Keierleber for The Seventy Four.

"It's going to mean that there are more local leaders learning and growing from each other under one roof," said Marc Porter Magee, the founder and CEO of 50CAN, who will now serve as CEO of the combined organizations. "It marries the best of grassroots local leadership with the sophistication of professional campaigns."

Jim Blew, president of StudentsFirst, is expected to become a senior adviser for 50CAN. In his new role, Blew will be responsible for uniting the lobbying and campaigning efforts of StudentsFirst with 50CAN's network of state policy activists.

The new 50CAN will run advocacy and lobbying campaigns in at least 11 states. In addition, it will offer support for the expansion of charter school opportunities in Camden and Newark, New Jersey, as well as reducing suspensions in Minnesota.

Blew noted the timeliness of the merger, saying it is occurring at the same time as the Every Student Succeeds Act, which works to restrict the role played by the federal government in education, is looking to re-center education policy-making nationwide.

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