by Chris Carter
School districts are feeling the backlash of a nationwide address to schools by President Barack Obama on Tuesday. Officials say the speech stresses the importance of “persisting and succeeding in school.” The address from the president, purportedly challenging students to “work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning,” sounds harmless, but events surrounding the address – whether intended or not – have turned a message to children into a means to further divide the country and weaken political opponents.
A controversy may have been avoided if the White House had released a transcript of the president's address so parents and school districts could have made an informed decision as to whether to allow children to hear the message. Parents have the right to determine what their children watch on television, and who their children can talk to. School districts have the right to determine for themselves – based in part on input from the parents – what material will be covered in the classroom. When it isn't known what the message is – president or not – parents and school districts are well within reason to oppose such a message until more is known.
Despite the growing controversy, however, The White House has determined not to release a transcript until Monday evening – the night before the address.
Parents are also justified in their concern about the lesson plans distributed by the Department of Education (DOE) to accompany the address. One section read more like a call for children to carry out Obama's political agenda than urging them to finish their homework: stating that children should “Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.”
But why would children need to “help the president” when the focus is supposedly on “persisting and succeeding in school?”
As a result of the cryptic message, school districts in many states have decided not to present the address. The DOE eventually replaced the section, which Heather Higginbottom, deputy director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, called “inartfully worded.” But is it too much to ask of a department with more than $150 billion at their disposal and thousands of employees to not make such egregious editing errors?
White House Spokesman Tommy Vietor said that the section was reworded in an effort to “clarify the language so the intent was clear.” The section now urges children to, “Write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals,” which have nothing to do with the president.
Another section asked children ranging from preschool to sixth grade: “Why is it important that we listen to the president and other elected officials, like the mayor, senators, members of congress, or the governor? Why is what they say important?”
Notably absent from the DOE's documents is the importance of listening to the child's parents, who have far more bearing on the child's education than elected officials.
While it is possible that the next piece is tangential, it is still worth noting, as it has played a part in bringing the controversy to fever pitch. Utah's KSL 5 News reported on Wednesday that the principal at Eagle Bay Elementary showed a video to students which included scenes of celebrities pledging to “be a servant to our president and all mankind” and another scene which said “I pledge to be of service to Barack Obama.” KSL 5's coverage of the incident mentioned the pledges related to stem cell research, abandoning plastic bags, and hybrid vehicles, but conveniently avoided any mention of pledging service to Obama – once again having the effect of casting concerned parents as opposing such harmless issues as plastic bags. The principal later sent out an apology letter to parents, and the report stated that there were only a “handful” of calls, mostly supportive of the school's decision to show children the video.
Parents not wanting to have their children hear the president's message are being marginalized by papers like The New York Times as “conservatives” fearful of classrooms “being turned over to some socialist movement.” White House press secretary Robert Gibbs chimed in with his usual condescension, “I think we've reached a little bit of the silly season when the president of the United States can't tell kids in school to study hard and stay in school.”
What Gibbs calls “silly season” is actually the exercise of parental rights and the responsiveness of local government – parents and school districts exercising their right to choose what their children watch or listen to.
Perhaps there wouldn't be nearly as much opposition had the administration not released a suspicious lesson plan and had a highly controversial video of Americans pledging allegiance to the president – not the flag – of the United States not been shown to children. Barack Obama may be the president – and his message may well prove to be innocuous – but his administration does not override our rights.
But what the president's apologists are leaving out is that this issue transcends partisanship – these are the same parents who tell their children “not to talk to strangers.” Until the transcript is released on Monday, parents don't know what Obama will say any more than the neighbor across the street.
President George H. W. Bush conducted a similar address in 1991 from Alice Deal Junior High School in Washington D.C. where the president called on children to study hard, avoid drugs, and turn in troublemakers. Similarly, the president was met with criticism from the Democrat Party. Criticism of Bush 41, however was targeted at using money from the DOE's coffers to increase his popularity, not at enlisting children to help drive a political agenda that is largely unpopular with voters. It remains to be seen whether Democrats will remain consistent in their opposition to spending precious education dollars on speeches by the president.
Obama's address to our children will undoubtedly be the harmless and inspirational message that the White House claims. Because in doing so, the White House has smoked out members of the opposition – to include concerned parents – and with the help of the media, has belittled them in the process. Opponents to Obama's agenda have in effect hung themselves – and all the White House had to do was give them the rope.
The address will air Tuesday, September 8 at 1200 Eastern Time on C-SPAN and The White House website.
Sept. 7, 2009
A transcript of the president's speech is now posted at The White House website. It's tempting to wonder whether edits were made after the public response to announcements about his address to students.
Sept. 8, 2009
What's the difference between a Republican presidential address to school kids and a Democratic address? A Congressional hearing, of course!