Christine Stuart file photo

A former lawmaker and candidate for state Senate says parents got stuck in the middle of a debate between teacher union advocates and education reform advocates earlier this year as debate on Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s education reforms efforts were just getting started.

Jason Bartlett, a former Bethel lawmaker who advocated for legislation in 2010 which would give parents a say at how to reconstitute a failing school, dismissed allegations made in a leaked letter published online last week by the “Progressive Change Campaign Committee.”

The letter from StudentsFirst General Counsel Angella Dickens is addressed to Gwen Samuel, president of the Connecticut Parents Union, Bartlett, and two other parents. It alleges that it “underscored to Ms. Samuel that we are unable, as a matter of policy, to provide direct financial support,” to her organization. StudentsFirst spent more than $670,000 in Connecticut on advertising during the legislative session.

“We have also declined Mr. Bartlett’s repeated request to put him on a financial retainer,” Dickens wrote in the March 19th letter.

The letter goes onto explain how the well-funded StudentsFirst organization run by the controversial former chancellor of D.C.’s schools, Michelle Rhee, tried to speak to potential donors on behalf of the Connecticut Parents Union and even agreed to sponsor a rally with the group. The same rally Malloy had planned on attending until Rhee got involved.

“In support of that rally, we mobilized considerable internal StudentsFirst resources, including PR and mobilization support, and spent approximately $10,000 on costs,” Dickens wrote. “We were surprised to find out that StudentsFirst shouldered essentially the full financial load for this work, and that CTPU did not deliver the commitments to turnout.”

It goes onto say StudentsFirst paid for 300 sandwiches for the rally and less than one third of that was needed to feed those who attended. About 75 parents and students attended the rally http://www.ctnewsjunkie.com/ctnj.php/archives/entry/rhee/ and during her brief speech Rhee praised Malloy for linking student performance to teacher tenure.

Bartlett said he served as an informal adviser to Samuel to make sure parents had a voice during the education conversation. He said the letter is “factually incorrect” and demonstrates the breakdown in communication between Samuel and StudentsFirst over which group was going to pay for what. In the end, “things were worked out” and “everything was resolved,” he said.

He said the only reason the letter appeared recently is because of the tit-for-tat going on between Diane Ravitch and Rhee.

Rhee’s organization is using the release of the movie “Won’t Back Down” as a way to begin a national conversation about parent trigger laws which allow parents to have a say over how schools are being run. Connecticut doesn’t have a direct parent trigger law like California, but it does have a modified one which allows parents of failing schools to sit on school governance councils. They also screened the movie at the Republican National Convention in Tampa last week.

Ravitch, the research professor of education at New York University, advocates for a more community-based method of turning around failing schools and believes Rhee’s organization is out to privatize public schools.

“The attacks on teachers’ unions are out of the rightwing playbook,” Ravitch wrote on her blog. “The embrace of privatization and for-profit schooling is neither liberal nor Democratic.”

But Michael Phillips, a spokesman for StudentsFirst, said the organization is a grassroots movement working to focus on an education system based on what’s best for students.

The message in the movie is “we can do something to fix the schools we have,” Phillips said.

He said more than 300 people attended the screening on Monday.

The Huffington Post is reporting that the screening of the movie in Charlotte needed permission from the highest ranks of the Democratic party. Unions, including teacher unions, have great influence in the Democratic party.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said a week ago  that “instead of focusing on real parent empowerment and how communities can come together to help all children succeed, ‘Won’t Back Down’ offers parents a false choice — you’re either for students or for teachers, you can either live with a low-performing school or take dramatic, disruptive action to shut a school down.”

It was more than a year ago that one of Connecticut’s teachers’ unions bragged it was able to defuse a pure parent trigger law in the Nutmeg state.

In a presentation to its national organization Jennifer Berigan, a lobbyist for AFT CT, claimed credit for turning a bill the union opposed into something it could support by watering down parental control over failing schools. She was later reprimanded for the presentation, which was quickly pulled from the national organization’s website.