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New advocacy group with city roots enters state's reform fray

The latest entrant into New York’s crowded field of education advocacy groups won’t immediately be lobbying for new policies in New York City.

Instead, the new nationally-backed group, New York Campaign for Achievement Now, or NYCAN, plans to push for a law that would enable parents to vote on ways to improve their struggling district schools. The policy was backed heavily by upstate New York reform groups last year, but a proposed bill did in the state legislature failed to garner enough support.

The policy, known as parent trigger is at the top of NYCAN’s 2012 legislative agenda, which the group released today as part of its official launch.

NYCAN is one of four state affiliates of 50CAN, an organization founded on a model that started in Connecticut. The New York group is headed by Christina Grant, a former New York City teacher and a one-time director for the charter school office in the Department of Education. But despite her close ties to New York City, Grant said she planned to spend a lot of her time in Albany and focus primarily on statewide issues, something she said separates her group from other education reform groups in the state.

“We have a huge state and NYCAN exists to be a coalition builder throughout the state,” Grant said on a conference call with reporters this morning. “Our goal is to really draw attention to statewide issues.”

What exactly those issues are remained in flux in recent weeks, even as NYCAN pushed forward with its plans to launch. Grant said she wouldn’t enter the battle over teacher evaluations, a debate that promises to be one of the biggest issues this spring in Albany.

Instead, NYCAN decided to join a coalition of regional upstate groups trying to pass the parent trigger after members who serve on the Grant’s advisory board lobbied her to join their cause.

“I think we really made the case that this was the issue for upstate and we’re ready for it,” said Carrie Remis, director of Parent Power Project, a Rochester-based education group. “I think once we had that conversation, we convinced them.”

NYCAN received $1.2 million in grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, Grant said. (Another early funder, Ken Hirsh, has also contributed to GothamSchools.) The foundations also have poured millions of dollars into other advocacy groups aimed at affecting policy change in New York City and the state.

The investment indicates how philanthropists’ focus has shifted to changing education by changing state policies.

A parent trigger law first passed in California in 2010 and was supported by another national parent reform group, Parent Revolution. The law allows parents to petition and vote to make sweeping changes to their district’s lowest-performing schools, including the option to close a school and replace it with a charter school.

Legislation was introduced in New York last year during the closing days of Albany’s session, but it did not gain enough momentum to be voted on. This year, the upstate coalition, led by Buffalo ReformED, plans to lobby legislators earlier, more aggressively and with a broader reach.

“Parent trigger isn’t right for every city in the state, but it is in Buffalo and Rochester, and having their support behind us will certainly be helpful for us in pushing the interest of our children and parents,” said Hannya Boulos said, executive director of Buffalo ReformED.

But critics of the policy say that it isn’t actually parent driven.

“The Parent Trigger was devised as an underhanded trick by the charter lobby to manipulate parents into letting them privatize more public schools,” said Leonie Haimson, city parent activist who also helped found a national organization, Parents Across America, that was created to fight back against policies that lack parent voices.

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