Obama school speech: Have partisan politics poisoned anything presidential?

Published September 3, 2009 7:00 pm
Education » The White House says Tuesday's speech to schoolchildren won't be about policy.
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The White House pushed back Thursday against criticisms from conservatives and concerns from parents, including some in Utah, about President Barack Obama's planned address to students next week.

The speech is not about health care reform nor any other item from the White House agenda, officials say, but will simply feature the president encouraging students to stay in school and work hard.

"The president will speak directly to students around the country about the value of education and the importance of staying in school as part of his effort to dramatically cut the dropout rate," said White House spokesman Adam Abrams. "It's not a policy speech."

In the speech, which will be broadcast live online at 10 a.m. Tuesday, Obama will challenge students to work hard, set educational goals and take responsibility for their learning, according to the U.S. Department of Education, which has urged schools to join in the "historic" event, even providing age-appropriate classroom activities.

But in Utah and nationwide, conservative voices are saying they don't want their kids "forced" to watch the speech, fearing it will eat up precious class time with political or policy messages.

Guy Sanderson, a sixth-grade teacher in Park City, says educators should pay mind to what's beyond the surface of Obama's speech.

"My last four years in the military, I worked the propaganda for special ops; we called it PSYOPS or information management," said Sanderson who plans to preview the speech before sharing it with students.

Some of the more extreme critics have used words like "re-education" and "indoctrination," to describe the speech, one that the conservative Drudge Report news site claimed was "unprecedented."

But the speech to student isn't the first of its kind.

President George H.W. Bush in 1991 http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu/research/public_papers.php?id=3394&year=1991&month=9" Target="_BLANK">spoke to students across the nation in a teleconference that was part of a national space science symposium. He talked about importance of studying math and science and answered other questions, ranging from "How difficult is it to be our president?" to whether he would like his dog - Millie - to be the first dog in space.

The first President Bush's speech earned some criticism from Democrats at the time. Then-House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt complained, "The Department of Education should not be producing paid political advertising for the president; it should be helping us to produce smarter students."

Then-Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., defended the speech, asking, "Why is it political for the president of the United States to discuss education?"

Some teachers are seizing upon the speech as a real-life lesson in politics and democracy. Others hope it stirs critical thinking and debate, though others have no plans to interrupt their regularly scheduled class work for the speech.

School districts statewide are urging parents not to boycott school Tuesday and many -- not all -- are allowing for students to opt out of classes planning on tuning in.

"Don't keep your kids at home all day," said Jordan School District spokeswoman Melinda Colton. "This is an hourlong broadcast that may or may not be shown in class. And for those students who don't want to watch it, we'll provide other activities."

The White House has promised to post the text of the address on its Web site Monday so school administrators can see the president's remarks before letting students see the address.

Most Utah school teachers will decide for themselves whether to air the live speech in class, with a few caveats. Districts are advising principals to provide alternate activities for students whose parents object.

A permission slip sent out for students to view the speech "outraged" Brett Boberg and some of his teaching colleagues at Bingham High School in South Jordan.

"We have some staunch Republicans in this department who are disgusted," said the American history and government teacher. "It's a disgrace when a social studies teacher has to seek parental permission to show a speech in class by the president of the United States."

Boberg said he commonly airs political speeches in class, including John McCain's Republican nomination acceptance speech and State of the Union addresses with no such permission requirement.

Tony Anderson at Brighton High School in Sandy plans to view the speech and deconstruct it in class.

"I'm a little surprised it's even an issue," said the seven-year English teacher who suspects people object to the messenger, not the message.

"I don't think race is an issue here [in Utah]. It's party politics. It probably wouldn't be a problem if this was George Bush," he said.

Observers say the reaction generated by Obama's speech shows the ridiculous lengths to which partisanship has been pushed in today's society.

Rich Hanley, the director of graduate journalism programs at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, says the echo chamber of talk radio and political rhetoric these days has polarized the nation.

"It just shows that in the contemporary discourse the crazy theories seem to trump rationality or any real sense that the president can't be kind to school kids by telling them to do well" without it being taken as a political ploy, Hanley says. "It's the way America rolls in 2009, and it speaks volumes about where we are as a nation."

Utah Republican Party Chairman Dave Hansen says it's not what the president wants to tell the schoolchildren that is concerning, it's that he is doing it Tuesday, a day before his joint address to Congress about health care reform.

"Any message to children about staying in school and studying and learning is a good message," Hansen says. "The thing that strikes me as a little odd is the timing of it: Congress is coming back into session, health care is front and center on everybody's agenda, he's doing speech to both [chambers] of Congress. And then, all of a sudden, he decides to do this?"

Obama's speech will be streamed live on the White House Web site and carried on C-SPAN at 10 a.m. MDT. In addition to Obama's visit to a suburban Washington high school, Cabinet members are fanning out across the nation to visit schools during the speech.

tburr@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">tburr@sltrib.com

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