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Obama's speech to students creates divide

In the president's plan to address schoolchildren, some parents see an educational opportunity where others see political opportunism.

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DALLAS — When kids all across the country return to school Tuesday, some will see a welcoming message from President Barack Obama and some won't.

Obama's planned address to students has touched off yet another confrontation with Republican critics, who have battered the White House over health care and now accuse the president of foisting a political agenda on children.

The White House said the message will encourage children to study hard and stay in school. Melissa Hogan said the president is a perfect person to share that message with her daughter, Tori, a fourth grader at Dillard Drive Elementary.

"This is a very important person and when kids get to hear something about motivation from someone like that – someone who was motivated enough and got voted in – that's fantastic," she said.

"I don't think they (critics) should think it's political. He's just trying to do what's best for our kids."

The president's 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. WRAL.com will carry the speech live, and record it so that you can watch it online anytime.

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 tune in.

Wake County public schools will make individual decisions about whether to show the speech, a district spokesman said. The school system said schools should treat the speech like any other enrichment opportunity. As such, it must meet three criteria:

  • The activity must be aligned with the state's Standard Course of Study;
  • Parents of the students who might participate be made aware of the activity
  • Appropriate alternative educational activities must be provided for students whose parents opt not to have them participate.

Colleen Cox, of Raleigh, said she will keep her second-grader home if her school chooses to show the speech.

"I don't trust what he says. He changes what he says all the time to go with poll numbers," she said.

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.

The White House plans to release the speech online Monday so parents can read it.

Kerra Bolton, a spokeswoman for the North Carolina Democratic Party, said, "Republican fear-mongering has reached a new low. ... We are lucky to have a president who makes communicating with all Americans a priority."

Tom Fetzer, chairman of the North Carolina GOP, called on North Carolina school systems to refrain from participating in the speech, saying, “This speech is clearly political in nature and has no place in the classroom.”

White House deputy policy director Heather Higginbottom 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.

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 pointed out that lesson plans the administration created to accompany the speech 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."

Fetzer advised parents to read the speech and related material for themselves before making a decision.

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.'"

Cox agreed, saying her daughter can watch the speech on one condition. "I will watch it with her, so I can help her understand what's being said," she said.

"I do see a value in what any president has to say. However, I want to know what they are going to say to my child and feel that should be monitored ...  I monitor what she watches on television, regardless of what it is, so this is something I want to know," she added.

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.

Florida GOP chairman Jim Greer said in a statement 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.

The Minnesota Association of School Administrators is recommending against disrupting the first day of school to show the speech, but Minnesota's biggest teachers' union is urging schools to show it.

Quincy, Ill., schools decided Thursday not to show the speech. Superintendent Lonny Lemon said phone calls "hit like a load of bricks" on Wednesday.

One Idaho school superintendent, Murray Dalgleish of Council, 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.'"


Renee Chou, Reporter

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