DALLAS – President Barack Obama’s back-to-school address next week was supposed to be a feel-good story for an administration battered over its health care agenda. Now 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 will be shown live on the White House Web site 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 still thinking it over or are letting parents have their kids opt out.
Some conservatives, driven by radio pundits 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 Sen. 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.”
The White House plans to release the speech online Monday so parents can read it. He will deliver the speech at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va.
“I think it’s really unfortunate that politics has been brought into this,” White House deputy policy director Heather Higginbottom said in an interview.
“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.
Critics are particularly upset about lesson plans the administration created to accompany the speech. 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 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,” Higginbottom said.
In the Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas, the 54,000-student school district is not showing the 15- to 20-minute address but will make the video available later.
PTA council President Cara Mendelsohn said Obama is “cutting out the parent” by speaking to kids during school hours.
“Why can’t a parent be watching this with their kid in the evening?” Mendelsohn said. “Because that’s what makes a powerful statement, when a parent is sitting there saying, ‘This is what I dream for you. This is what I want you to achieve.’ ”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, said in an interview that he’s “certainly not going to advise anybody not to send their kids to school that day.”
“Hearing the president speak is always a memorable moment,” he said.
But he also said he understood where the criticism was coming from.
“Nobody seems to know what he’s going to be talking about,” Perry said. “Why didn’t he spend more time talking to the local districts and superintendents, at least give them a heads-up about it?”
One school superintendent, Murray Dalgleish of Council, in west-central Idaho, urged people not to rush to judgment.
“Is the president dictating to these kids? I don’t think so,” Dalgleish said. “He’s trying to get out the same message we’re trying to get out, which is, ‘You are in charge of your education.’ ”
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