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President Seeks to Avoid Politics in Speech to Schools

In a speech that drew fire even before he delivered it, President Barack Obama is telling the nation's schoolchildren he expects "great things from each of you." Video by AP

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By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 8, 2009

When President Obama talks to America's students at lunchtime Tuesday, he will tell them to persevere in their studies, stay in school, discover their passions and wash their hands.

"What you're learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future," he plans to say in a speech at Wakefield High School in Arlington, according to a text of his remarks released Monday by the White House. Thousands of students across the country will watch on TV or online.

Obama does not enumerate those challenges nor mention his political agenda, as many conservatives feared he would when details of the speech and the Education Department's suggested follow-up lessons emerged last week.

Republicans have called Obama's back-to-school address an inappropriate political intrusion into the classroom.

Some parents have threatened to keep their children out of school Tuesday to avoid the speech. The White House released the planned text a day early on its Web site to give parents and others a preview on which to base their decisions.

Speaking to reporters Monday aboard Air Force One, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs compared the debate to "an Animal House food fight."

"I think it's a sad, sad day that the political back and forth has intruded on anyone speaking to schoolchildren and teachers and parents about the responsibilities that they have as we enter a new school year," Gibbs said.

Jim Greer, the Florida GOP chairman who last week accused the president of trying to "indoctrinate America's children to his socialist agenda," said after reading the remarks that he'll now let his children watch. "It's a good speech," Greer said Monday. "It encourages kids to stay in school and the importance of education, and I think that's what a president should do."

Obama, according to the prepared remarks, intends something more generically uplifting than political. "At the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents and the best schools in the world -- and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities," he intends to tell students.

Staff writer Jenna Johnson contributed to this report.

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