School districts from Maryland to Texas are fielding angry complaints from parents opposed to President Barack Obama’s back-to-school address Tuesday – forcing districts to find ways to shield students from the speech as conservative opposition to Obama spills into the nation’s classrooms.
The White House says Obama’s address is a sort of pep talk for the nation’s schoolchildren. But conservative commentators have criticized Obama for trying to “indoctrinate” students to his liberal beliefs, and some parents call it an improper mix of politics and education.
“The gist is, ‘I want to see what the president has to say before you expose it to my child.’ Another said, ‘This is Marxist propaganda.’ They are very hostile,” said Patricia O’Neill, a Democrat who is vice president of the Montgomery County School Board, in a district that borders Washington, D.C. “I think it’s disturbing that people don’t want to hear the president, but we live in a diverse society.”
The White House moved Thursday to quell the controversy. First it revised an Education Department lesson plan that drew the ire of conservatives because it called for students to write letters about how they can help the president.
Then Obama aides said they would release the text of Obama’s address on Monday, a day before his speech is to be beamed into the classrooms – an apparent attempt to show skeptical parents ahead of time what he plans to say.
Obama’s speech to students was first announced late last month but criticism grew this week, as conservative commentators including Glenn Beck and Michelle Malkin said Obama was trying to improperly influence the students. Beck even urged parents to take their children out of school on Tuesday to protest Obama’s speech.
The forum – a presidential address to students, where Obama plans to encourage them to take responsibility for education and do their best – might seem an unlikely forum for conservatives to make a stand. But some of the commentators said it was improper for Obama to insert himself so visibly into a classroom setting.
And it shows that the conservative anger with Obama and his policies is moving beyond the congressional town halls in August, where many members of Congress were loudly criticized by conservatives opposed to Obama’s health care policies.
Republican strategist Rich Galen said he didn’t have a problem with Obama reaching out to school children because “he is everybody’s president. But you have to be very careful that it is not seen as literally propaganda. The original idea to have them write letters about how to help the president crossed the line and the White House realized that.”
But Democratic strategist Chris Lehane said the protest against the presidential speech “shows at some level how desperate the right is to find an issue to challenge Obama on...They have gotten some traction on health care, but the mere fact that they have jumped on this reflects that this is a party without a voice. Are they going to run in the mid-terms on a ‘Presidents shouldn’t talk to kids’ platform?”
The address has left districts in the awkward spot of deciding how to handle the speech. Six districts contacted by POLITICO all said they would leave it to local school superintendents, principals and teachers whether to show the speech – but all said they would provide alternative activities for students whose parents didn’t want them to see the broadcast.
In many ways, it wasn’t simply the address that rankled conservatives, but a pair of proposed lesson plans, for young students and middle- to high-schoolers. The initial classroom activities made available on the Education Department’s website were characterized by Malkin as having an “activist bent.”
The White House altered the language of one suggested activity, which initially read, "Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.”
That was changed to: “"Write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short?term and long?term education goals.”
“Parents who called me who voiced concern about the speech all mentioned the teaching material and particular activities that were suggested,” said Charles Pyle, spokesman for the Virginia Department of Education. One district in Virginia, in Loudoun County, said Thursday it wouldn’t show the speech at all.
“We had a few calls in our office and concerns from parents who didn’t feel it was appropriate for students to participate in a political activity. They wanted to make sure that if it is shown, it is an educational discussion and in no way a discussion about politics,” said Michael Vaughn, spokesman for Denver Public Schools. “We never second-guess our parents if they have concerns about classroom materials.”
A letter from the Denver schools Chief Academic Officer, Ana Tilton, posted Thursday on district’s website, reminds principals that “if there are parents who still don’t want their child to listen to the president’s speech, please have an alternate activity available.”
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan last month sent out a note to principals announcing the president’s address as a “historic speech” where Obama “will challenge students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning.”
Obama isn’t the first president to be criticized this way. O’Neill recalled President George H. W. Bush made televised address to students in October 1991 as campaign season was heating up. A handful of Democrats denounced Bush’s address as pure politics. Bush asked students to “take control” of their education and to write him a letter about ways students could help him achieve his goals, strikingly similar to Obama’s messages.