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NY branch of Rhee's group will focus on parents, school choice

This story has been corrected from its earlier version to clarify the positions expressed by Lasher yesterday.

Two months ago StudentsFirstNY, the New York branch of Michelle Rhee’s political action committee, announced itself with a splash. But it hasn’t been clear where the group will direct its financial and political might.

Micah Lasher, StudentsFirstNY’s executive director, fleshed out the group’s platform for the first time at a discussion hosted Monday by the DL21C, a group of young Democrats. GothamSchools’ Elizabeth Green moderated the discussion.

StudentsFirstNY will also focus on organizing parents to demand policy changes around improving teacher quality and school choice, Lasher said. He also said the group might well weigh in on next year’s mayoral race, whose victor will determine the next phase of the city’s education reforms.

“If there comes a time where it becomes clear that there is a candidate that we think would be effective on these issues, and it makes sense according to our political judgements and the way we think we can best improve schools in the city, I would allow us to get involved in getting support of a candidate,” Lasher said.

But he said the organization’s first goal is making sure candidates pay attention to education throughout the campaign.

“Our job is to make sure everybody knows where each candidate stands,” he said.

Until joining StudentsFirst in April, Lasher was the city’s chief lobbyist in Albany. Previously, he worked for the city’s Department of Education, where he was critical in the passing of 2010’s charter school law.

StudentsFirstNY is affiliated with Michelle Rhee’s national political action committee, which has several state chapters. But the New York chapter is the only one that operates as a separate entity, with its own board.

StudentsFirstNY is just the latest in a string of education advocacy groups to set up shop in New York City. NYCAN began operations earlier this year, joining the longer-standing Democrats for Education Reform and the newer Families for Excellent Schools group, which organizes parents.

“There are a lot of people doing really good work on advocacy, but our hope is that we can create a robust, multi-faceted organization,” he said.

He said all the new groups will be important as the city prepares for new leadership. Under Bloomberg — and especially during Klein’s tenure as chancellor — education was a top priority, and policy change came fast and furious. But Lasher said a side effect of Bloomberg’s mayoral control, which he helped renegotiate in 2009, was that advocacy groups that favored reform had little incentive to assert themselves.

“As education moved from a grassroots movement to the regime, the energy on the outside dissipated,” he said.

Now, with a new mayor on the horizon, that energy is needed again, he said. But asked how his group would engage parents, Lasher declined to offer specifics.

“You’ll have to find out,” he said.

But one detail Lasher did flesh out was the organization’s stance on the ongoing controversy about public availability of teacher evaluations, which some advocacy groups have been hesitant to weigh in on. Lasher said StudentFirstNY’s position is that teacher ratings should be public, but that some restrictions might be warranted.

And ultimately pressure from parents is one thing that Lasher said he hopes StudentsFirstNY will generate.

“When my neighbors are unhappy about something, their elected officials know it, because they have a lot of resources,” said Lasher, who lives on the Upper West Side. “Our goal is to engage a broad swath of parents who participate in our poorest communities and have not been as well-served as some, and to engage them in the policy discussion in a way that will lead to more effective policy for their kids.”

“We’re going to do our damnedest to get New York City parents organized.”

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