MERIDEN, Conn. - Ask Gwen Samuel to describe just what her Connecticut Parents Union does, and she'll begin by explaining what it doesn't do.
"This is not a parents union that sells brownies to raise money for the local school," Samuel tells EAG. "There's no brownie baking here."
Instead, the Connecticut Parents Union (CTPU) - which celebrated its one-year anniversary Jan. 14 - has the far more ambitious goal remaking the Nutmeg State's entire public education system, a system it says is failing too many children.
"We're the richest state in the country, but we have some of the worst schools, and we have the worst achievement gap in the nation," Samuel, CTPU President and Founder, says.
The "achievement gap" is a shorthand way of describing the huge disparity in academic performance that exists between students in low-income, predominantly minority school districts and those in mostly white, middle-to-upper income districts.
A recent analysis by the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now found that "low-income students and students of color are about three grade levels behind everyone else [in] both reading and math."
Connecticut spends $14,531 per pupil, well above the national average of $10,499.
The decay and complacency that has settled into too many of Connecticut's schools has created a sense of urgency in Samuel, who has two children in the public schools.
"If you don't protect your baby, who will?" she asks.
That parental instinct to protect children - from failing schools and ineffective teachers - has led the CTPU to propose a comprehensive education reform agenda.
The group wants parents to be given the choice of where their children attend school. It also calls for scrapping seniority job protections for teachers, linking teacher evaluations to student learning, and empowering parents to have a role in turning around ineffective schools.
In other words, it's an agenda that slays a number of the teacher unions' sacred cows. It's also an agenda that's finding support among lawmakers and business leaders.
According to Samuel, Connecticut lawmakers now understand that a better-educated workforce is necessary to help the state attract and retain businesses, which are essential to healing the economy.
NorwichBulletin.com reported last summer that "Half of the large firms taking part in a recent survey have considered leaving Connecticut or expanding out of the state in the past year, a fact the Connecticut Business and Industry Association called 'most alarming.'"
"As tough as it's been, the recession was the best thing that happened because it put a spotlight on the achievement gap. Now everything is on the table," Samuel says.
It appears that much of the CTPU's agenda will be considered during Connecticut's current legislative session, which Gov. Dannel Malloy, a Democrat, has promised will feature "bold education reform."
That puts the parents union and other education reformers on a collision course with the state's two teacher unions - theConnecticut Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers Connecticut.
"This legislative session is going to be all about education reform," Samuel says. "It's going to be all-out war."
Parents 'can do some serious shifting of the status quo.'
This won't be the first time Samuel has done battle with the teachers unions.
In 2010, Samuel worked with state Rep. Jason Bartlett to pass a "Parent Trigger" law that would have allowed a simple majority of parents to overhaul a failing public school - either by replacing most of the staff or by turning it over to a charter school operator. It was patterned after California's Parent Trigger law.
The unions mobilized and succeeded in getting Connecticut lawmakers to replace the Parent Trigger idea with "advisory" School Governance Councils. In the end, the power given to parents was more symbolic than revolutionary, a fact that union leaders later bragged about at a national convention.
An AFT Connecticut document infamously referred to concerned parents as "the opposition." The experience opened Samuel's eyes about how viciously the union leaders protect their turf.
The CEA and AFT Connecticut retaliated against Bartlett, spearheading the effort to defeat his re-election bid.
The controversy taught Samuel that if parents band together, "we can do some serious shifting of the status quo."
"After it was over, I told the union leaders, 'I'll see you next year,'" Samuel says.
'It's nothing personal -- it's just about the children'
The Connecticut Parents Union officially launched on January 14, 2011. It is a real union, with a five-member leadership board. Annual memberships go for $30, and come with a growing list of member benefits from local businesses.
"I want to be like the AFT when I grow up," Samuel says, chuckling at the irony of her words.
She envisions hiring lobbyists to represent the parents at the capitol building in Hartford and lawyers to represent parents in legal proceedings. One of the CTPU's first undertakings was to pay the legal fees of Marie Menard, a grandmother who was arrested in October 2010 for illegally enrolling her grandsons in the Stratford school district.
Menard, who has paid property taxes to the city of Stratford since 1983, claims the kids lived with her on and off. The case is pending in a federal court.
Samuel says residency laws undercut the state's Constitution which guarantees each child a free and appropriate education. Changing the state's residency laws - which often leave low-income students trapped in failing schools - is a main focus of the parents union.
"If kids are entitled to a good education, they shouldn't have to stay in a district where they can't get that," Samuel says. "If we win this case, it will set a precedent for the rest of the country."
Samuel is also working with other concerned parents to organize parents unions in Texas and Ohio.
StudentsFirst, the education reform group founded by former Washington D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, announced Feb. 9 that it is joining efforts with CTPU and other groups to press for education reform in Connecticut.
Samuel and other CTPU leaders plan on making frequent visits to lawmakers' offices in the coming weeks, to remind them they can't serve both the unions and students. The CTPU is also planning a "High Quality Education Rally" for parents and families on March 14 at the state capitol.
RiShawn Biddle is a longtime education reform advocate and editor of Dropout Nation, a pro-reform website. He's also a member of CTPU's advisory board.
In an interview with EAG, Biddle said Connecticut's teacher unions and lawmakers are taking Samuel and her parents union very seriously.
"Folks are paying attention," Biddle says. "More parents are learning about the concept, and they're interested. Parents are getting inspired."
Biddle adds that the rise of parents unions across the country "no longer represent a small threat to the status quo. It's about to become a major threat."
Samuel agrees that the rise of parent unions and the legislative focus on education reform "signals a changing of the guard" in Connecticut and other states.
"The unions have to know it's not just about them," she says.
"I tell the union leaders, 'It's nothing personal, it's just about the children.'"