Obama’s planned speech criticized

Back-to-school talk called politics

By Libby Quaid and Linda Stewart Ball
Associated Press / September 4, 2009

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DALLAS - President Obama’s back-to-school address next week was supposed to be a feel-good story, but Republican critics are calling it an effort to foist a political agenda on children, creating yet another confrontation with the White House.

Obama plans to speak directly to students Tuesday about the need to work hard and stay in school. His address, from a high school in Arlington, Va., will be shown live on the White House website and on C-SPAN at noon EDT, a time when classrooms across the country will be able to tune in.

Schools don’t have to show it. But districts across the country have been inundated with phone calls from parents and are struggling to address the controversy that broke out after Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent a letter to principals urging schools to watch.

Districts in states including Texas, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Virginia, and Wisconsin have decided not to show the speech to students. Others are thinking it over or are letting parents have their children opt out.

Some conservatives, driven by radio hosts and bloggers, are urging schools and parents to boycott the address. They say Obama is using the opportunity to promote a political agenda and is overstepping the boundaries of federal involvement in schools.

“As far as I am concerned, this is not civics education - it gives the appearance of creating a cult of personality,’’ said Oklahoma state Senator Steve Russell. “This is something you’d expect to see in North Korea or in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.’’

Arizona state schools superintendent Tom Horne, a Republican, said lesson plans for teachers created by Obama’s Education Department “call for a worshipful rather than critical approach.’’

Critics are particularly upset that the lesson plans, available online, originally recommended having students “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.’’ The White House revised the plans Wednesday to say that students could “write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals.’’

“That was inartfully worded, and we corrected it,’’ White House deputy policy director Heather Higginbottom said. The White House also plans to release the speech online Monday so parents can read it in advance. “I think it’s really unfortunate that politics has been brought into this,’’ she said. “It’s simply a plea to students to really take their learning seriously. Find out what they’re good at. Set goals. And take the school year seriously.’’

She noted that President George H.W. Bush made a similar address to schools in 1991. Like Obama, Bush drew criticism, with Democrats accusing the Republican president of making the event into a campaign commercial.

In the Dallas suburb of Plano, the 54,000-student school district is not showing the 15- to 20-minute address but will make the video available later.

In Wisconsin, the Green Bay school district decided not to show the speech live and to let teachers decide individually whether to show it later.

In Florida, GOP chairman Jim Greer released a statement that he was “absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology.’’

Despite his rhetoric, two of the larger Florida districts, Miami-Dade and Hillsborough, plan to have classes watch the speech. Students whose parents object will not have to watch.