When an affiliate of the nation’s largest teachers’ union buys commercial time during the National Football League’s NFC Champion game, it certainly gets notice. That is exactly what the National Education Association’s Connecticut local did yesterday when it began its two-week campaign to push for its legislative agenda. And for school reformers, it is both a preview of the political battle that will come in the next few months within the nation’s statehouses — and a reminder that they will have to step up their political game to advance reform.

With the pleasant voice-over declaring that the union is pushing to “replace teacher tenure” and for greater “parental involvement”, the NEA’s commercial campaign is at least superficially appealing. The fact that its actual agenda actually calls for none of that at all — and merely offers a series of mild proposals, including a plan to reduce the time required for firing laggard teachers by 35 days, and cultural sensitivity training for the school governance councils through which the state’s Parent Trigger law is exercised — makes the ad campaign rather disingenuous. But the NEA’s attempt in Connecticut to play the same triangulation effort being tried at the national level by the American Federation of Teachers is at least slightly better than the bellicose messaging of its sister affiliates elsewhere.

But in many ways, the NEA has no other choice in this state. Why? Because it and its fellow education traditionalists are on the defensive. Over the past two years, school reformers have had some success, passing the nation’s second Parent Trigger law, and passing other measures allowing the state to take over failing districts. The Nutmeg State’s education department made waves last year when it took over Bridgeport’s collection of failure mills (and ruffled the feathers of Parent Power activists concerned about the secrecy of its process) and hiring  former Chicago and Recovery School District boss Paul Vallas to lead the overhaul. With Gov. Dan Malloy offering a series of reforms this legislative session — and the state’s school superintendents’ association breaking ranks with its fellow education traditionalist groups — the NEA and AFT, along with other status quo defenders, are on their own.

This defensive crouch became a proverbial fetal position last year when Dropout Nation revealed that a presentation by the AFT AFT and its Connecticut affiliate on how the union watered down legislation that created the Parent Trigger law, excluded Parent Power and other school reform groups such as ConnCAN from back-room negotiations with state legislators, and ultimately, helped oust Jason Bartlett, the state representative whose work helped lead to its passage. The revelations, which led national AFT President Randi Weingarten to issue a series of non-apology apologies (and even a formal in-person apology to  legislators and Connecticut Parents Union President Gwen Samuel),still echo in the mind of Nutmeg State legislators — and not in a good way. As a result, educational traditionalists — especially the NEA (which itself isn’t all that happy with either the AFT’s presentation or the sister union’s brag that it had to drag it “kicking and screaming” into efforts to water down the law) — will now have to work harder to keep the status quo ante.

Meanwhile the AFT fiasco has taught Nutmeg State school reformers that they need to step up their own game. They are putting those lessons to use.

Last week, the Connecticut Parents Union captured headlines with its own press conference laying out its legislative agenda to advance Parent Power; this includes requiring schools directly controlled by the NEA and AFT through the state’s Compact Schools initiative to have school governance councils and, thus, be subjected to the Parent Trigger law. Through its work helping families in Ohio launch a Parents Union, and its support of Illinois mother Annette Callahan in her battle against Zip Code Education, the Connecticut Parents Union has also won considerable goodwill with (and support from) organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, Students For Education Reform, and the Black Alliance for Educational Options, which it can mass for its agenda. (Disclosure: Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle is a member of the Connecticut Parents Union’s advisory board.)

At the same time, longtime reform player ConnCAN and its new boss, Patrick Riccards, have taken apart the NEA’s proposals. The organization is also pushing its own school reform agenda in Connecticut’s statehouse, and could end up tag-teaming with the Connecticut Parents Union and others on efforts to revamp teacher evaluations and tenure.

Then there is a possible looming threat in the form of StudentsFirst, the school reform group launched by former D.C. Public Schools czar Michelle Rhee which has embraced the kind of political tactics (and ad campaigning) once reserved for political campaigns. Last year, StudentsFirst spent $900,000 in Michigan to advance an array of teacher quality and school choice reforms; it could easily pour similar dollars into Connecticut if reformers on the ground ask for the help. The very idea of Rhee and her team of ex-Democratic National Committee operatives launching ad campaigns isn’t exactly music to NEA or AFT ears.

So the NEA’s Connecticut affiliate has to take its considerable coffers to the airwaves in order to shape this session’s debates in their favor — and, by advertising during one of the nation’s biggest sporting events, quietly reminding legislators that the union may mobilize against them in upcoming primary and general election campaigns. The national union may also play its part. As Dropout Nation reported last month, the NEA poured $157,000 into Idahoans for Responsible Education Reform, which, along with the union’s Potato State affiliate, is looking to challenge school reforms successfully championed by the state’s school superintendent, Tom Luna, and Gov. Butch Otter, according to the union’s 2010-2011 filing with the U.S. Department of Labor; currently, the group is now looking to subject Luna to a recall. Don’t be surprised if the national union also provides funding to statewide progressive activist groups (as it has done in Ohio and Michigan), who can then attack centrist and liberal Democrat legislators supporting proposed reforms.

School reformers across the nation shouldn’t be surprised at what the NEA is doing in Connecticut. In fact, they should they expect NEA and AFT affiliates in other states to do the same. The success of reformers in passing school choice measures in 13 states, along with the string of victories on the teacher quality front (including the abolition of collective bargaining in states such as Wisconsin and Tennessee) have once again reminded the two unions that they will have to battle hard in every statehouse, either to stop reformers in their tracks or offer triangulating half-measures. The fact that families and taxpayers alike no longer feel much solidarity with NEA and AFT locals, and that school reformers have succeeded in ending the two union’s unquestioned support from Democrat politicians,has also put the NEA and AFT on the defensive. As governors and legislators tackle fiscal woes — including $1.1 trillion in teachers’ pension deficits and unfunded retired teacher healthcare costs, along with increasing Medicaid burdens — the unions are fighting to preserve the array of traditional teacher compensation arrangements (including near-lifetime employment and degree- and seniority-based pay) that have long sustained their influence and have won them support from rank-and-file members. And as state legislators in Indiana, Wisconsin, and elsewhere consider right-to-work legislation that would further reduce public-sector union influence, the NEA and AFT must fight harder just to stay in place.

Up to now, the NEA and AFT have taken different approaches to their political efforts; the former, by funding outfits such as Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in order to build coalitions against reform, while the AFT has engaged in triangulation by offering a sort of school reform lite. But with the former’s strategy failing miserably (and the AFT’s efforts not going so well), the NEA is now attempting other approaches. While the strategy of the NEA’s Connecticut affiliate has more in common with the triangulation approach of the AFT national, its sister affiliates (along with the national union) are becoming more militant, teaming up with outfits such as ProgressNow and raising more dollars to engage in big-dollar campaigning. And school reformers, especially centrist and liberal Democrat reformers, should expect more of their allies in legislators and gubernatorial spots to find themselves being primaried by progressive Democrat activists acting as stalking horses for the NEA and its sister public sector unions.

So reformers need to be more aggressive in the political game. As I noted in November, this means embracing an even more bipartisan approach of the kind advanced by Rhee and StudentsFirst, as well as teaming up with grassroots activists (including Parent Power groups) in order to reach families ready to support reform, but often ignored by the movement’s Beltway and operator wings. And finally, reformers need to spend more money on campaigning — and ensure that those dollars equal the amounts spent on policymaking and working statehouse corridors. Just imagine if school reformers spent $59 million during one election year on just congressional races and statehouse campaigns – the same amount spent by the NEA and AFT during the 2009-2010 election cycle? Right now, the only significant ad campaign from school reformers — other than those from StudentsFirst and the efforts two years ago  by the Eli and Edythe Broad and Bill & Melinda Gates foundations — has been run by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools — and that focused largely on informing Americans about what charter schools are.

The NEA’s ad campaign in Connecticut is a preview of what is going to happen in the rest of the nation this year on the education front. And school reformers will have to get their game right in order to stay on the offensive.