Some Schools Will Block or Delay Obama's Live Pep Talk for Students

D.C. schools chief Michelle A. Rhee said
D.C. schools chief Michelle A. Rhee said "it's a wonderful precedent" but will let her principals decide. (By Sarah L.voisin -- The Washington Post)
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By Michael Alison Chandler and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 4, 2009

Parents who want their children to hear President Obama's back-to-school message Tuesday might have to keep them home. School systems from the Washington suburbs to Houston are balking at airing the speech to all of their students. Loudoun County and Charles County have no plans to show it at all.

Logistics, rather than politics, are driving many of the decisions, especially in Northern Virginia, where Tuesday is the first day of school.

The speech, which will be broadcast live from Wakefield High School in Arlington County, was planned as an inspirational message "entirely about encouraging kids to work hard and stay in school," said White House spokesman Tommy Vietor. Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent a letter to principals nationwide encouraging them to show it.

But the announcement of the speech prompted a frenzied response from some conservatives, who called it an attempt to indoctrinate students, not motivate them.

Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida Republican Party, said the speech is an effort to "spread President Obama's socialist ideology" and "justify his positions" on health care, the economy and taxes. Conservative columnist Michelle Malkin claimed that "the left has always used kids in public schools as guinea pigs and as junior lobbyists for their social liberal agenda."

White House officials said they were surprised and frustrated by the reaction to a speech they said amounts to an educational pep talk. Vietor said the speech will be released Monday to give parents time to review it and decide for themselves. "There's a tradition in Washington of attack first, ask questions later," he said. "There is a 'ready, fire, aim' approach to political attacks. It's unfortunate that politics has been brought into this.

"It is not a policy speech. There is no discussion of health care or Afghanistan or any political issues. This is a speech about the importance of staying in school and working hard."

Previous presidents have given national speeches in schools. In October 1991, President George H.W. Bush gave a nationally televised speech to students at Alice Deal Junior High School in the District, encouraging them to study hard and avoid drugs. At the time, House Democrats criticized the speech for having political motivations.

The line between politics and schools has always been closely watched by both parties, said Diane Ravitch, an education historian at New York University. "Anything that seems to advance the presidents' agenda would bring them the wrath of Congress."

She said that Obama's speech appears to have a positive "study hard" message but that the educational materials that accompany it might have crossed an "invisible line" for some.

Many critics focused their concerns on suggested classroom activities, which appeared to solicit support for Obama. In response, the Education Department changed one proposal from having children write letters to themselves about "what they could do to help the president" to writing about "how they can achieve their short-term and long-term educational goals."

Supporters of the president's plan argued that it was a nonissue.

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