The new radio ad from GOP gubernatorial nominee Meg Whitman may seem a bit strange. She recommends that voters see a documentary called Waiting for Superman. It was directed by Davis Guggenheim, a Los Angeles-based filmmaker perhaps best known as the director of the Al Gore documentary on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth.
What's Meg up to? She's trying to put pressure on her opponent, Jerry Brown, on the issue of education.
Waiting for Superman is about teachers and schools. It's mostly progressive -- core to the film is outrage at how schools fail children, particularly poorer children in poor places -- and thus would not seem the kind of movie likely to be embraced by a Republican. Except for one thing: The film argues that teachers' unions -- who have been a target of Whitman's criticism and key supporters of Brown -- have stood in the way of education reform.
By pushing the film, Whitman puts Brown in an uncomfortable position. If he's asked about the movie and education reform, he can choose to say nice things -- and thus alienate his union supporters. Or he can be critical of the message -- and suggest it scapegoats teachers -- and thus give Whitman an opening to say that Brown is more interested in protecting his union backers than he is in education reform. With that, Whitman could use education (and the film) as a way to communicate to independents and even some Democrats who are concerned about schools that she is on their side.
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Look for Brown to dodge this subject if it comes up, or to take both sides of the debate. His own history would allow him to do so. He's started charter schools in Oakland, and charters are championed in the film. But his campaign policy is full of notes that the unions like -- particularly his skepticism about the value of standardized testing.
What does all of this mean for schools? Probably not much. In California, we never seem able to have direct discussions about schools and how they're funded. Instead, we talk indirectly, about films (the movie Stand and Deliver about unexpected academic success at East Los Angeles' Garfield High has been a conversation starter in previous campaigns) and other narratives as a substitute for real scrutiny of education particulars.