It’s been more than six years since a group of us came together in Connecticut to launch ConnCAN as a vehicle for achieving the fundamental education reforms our state so sorely needed. We were inspired, in no small part, by just how daunting the challenges confronting us actually were: Connecticut was home to the nation’s largest achievement gap and the only state to sue the federal government over the implementation of No Child Left Behind. With plenty of trial and error, late nights, and lots of hard work by key allies and advocates all across the state, we’ve proven that changing the status quo is possible, even in the toughest political climates.
In six years we’ve changed the education landscape through a number of successful advocacy campaigns: the most significant overhaul of Connecticut teacher certification laws in more than 20 years, a significant increase in state funding for the expansion of high-performing charter schools against the backdrop of one of the nation’s largest structural deficits and the creation of the state’s first alternative route to certification for principals, to name a few. We haven’t closed the achievement gap, but we’ve made headway.
The high school graduation rate in Hartford, once Connecticut’s lowest performing district, has more than doubled in the past four years. The statewide percentage of African American elementary students reading at a proficient level has also nearly doubled. The headway we have made working against the odds has captured the attention of folks outside the state. Along the way we’ve gotten lots of questions from people asking for advice on how to do in their state what we did in Connecticut.
As ConnCAN’s CEO I am the most public-facing member of its team, but I am by no means the primary secret to its success. The true secret to ConnCAN’s success is what many people don’t see: a team of talented and passionate individuals working behind the scenes to fit together all the pieces of ConnCAN’s advocacy model: communications, government relations, and policy and research. For our first five years, that team powering our Connecticut campaigns was built and led by former ConnCAN COO and current 50CAN President Marc Porter Magee.
As COO, Marc worked behind the scenes to build the campaign that allowed me to be a powerful change agent for kids. His innovations fundamentally shaped the ConnCAN model, and he understands it better than anyone, in part because he’s done it all: communications, research, government relations. He’s a gifted leader, clever strategist and expert on education policy who truly believes that great schools change everything. Now he is putting that talent to work supporting a new generation of state education leaders. I can’t think of a better person to head 50CAN.
50CAN was inspired by a key lesson we learned at ConnCAN: all politics is local, but locals shouldn’t have to start from scratch. Thanks to 50CAN, local education leaders like RI-CAN Executive Director Maryellen Butke, MinnCAN Executive Director Vallay Varro, MarylandCAN Executive Director Curtis Valentine and NYCAN Executive Director Christina Grant are equipped with the resources they need to mobilize a movement of education advocates in their home state. It is that combination of local leadership with national-caliber research and communications products that makes 50CAN so unique and so effective.
ConnCAN is proud to be part of this new national movement to close America’s achievement gap and provide great public schools for all. And I personally can’t wait to see how Connecticut, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Maryland, New York and the rest of the country will change because of it.
Alex Johnston is the founding ConnCAN CEO and senior advisor to the 50CAN board.