Obama speech to students: Is flap a sign of polarized times?

The controversy over the president's back-to-school speech scheduled for next week may also reflect other concerns about government involvement.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs (not pictured) stated that President Obama's upcoming speech is aimed at encouraging kids to study hard and stay in school.

President Reagan delivered a back-to-school speech to students in 1988. The first President Bush did one in 1991. But the next two presidents – Bill Clinton and George W. Bush – did not. Now President Obama has one scheduled to be televised at noon eastern time on Tuesday, and the uproar from conservatives has left the White House shaking its collective head.

“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,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters Friday morning.

Still, the Obama administration has had to take the concerns seriously, as some school districts, principals, and individual parents have opted not to allow their children to see the speech. The White House will post the speech online on Monday, to allow parents and administrators to read in advance what the president plans to say at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va. The speech will be broadcast live on www.WhiteHouse.gov and C-SPAN.

When word of the speech came out, conservatives charged that the president was trying to “indoctrinate” America’s young people with his “socialist agenda.” Columnist Michelle Malkin writes that “the activist tradition of government schools using students as junior lobbyists cannot be ignored.”

In a press release, Florida Republican Party chair Jim Greer said: “As the father of four children, I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology.”

Part of the issue is that the Department of Education offered teachers classroom activities to go along with the president’s address. An early version of the lesson plan suggested that students write letters to themselves saying “what they can do to help the president.” That wording was changed to suggest students write letters laying out how they can “achieve their short-term and long-term educational goals.”

But the damage was already done. And now the whole episode seems to be yet another sign of the highly polarized times – and growing concerns among some Americans over government involvement in other areas of life, such as healthcare and the right to bear arms.

At the Friday morning gathering with reporters, Mr. Gibbs said he could not explain the motivations of school districts that won’t show the speech.

“Look, there are some school districts that won’t let you read ‘Huckleberry Finn,’” he said.

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