DALLAS – President Barack Obama’s back-to-school address next week was supposed to be a feel-good story for an administration battered over its health care agenda. Now Republican critics are calling it an effort to foist a political agenda on children, creating yet another confrontation with the White House.
Obama plans to speak directly to students Tuesday about the need to work hard and stay in school. His address will be shown live on the White House Web site and on a C-SPAN channel around midday, a time when classrooms on both sides of the country will be able to tune in.
Schools don’t have to show it. But districts across the country have been inundated with phone calls from parents and are struggling to address the controversy that broke out after Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent a letter to principals urging schools to watch.
Districts in states including Texas, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Virginia, Wisconsin have decided not to show the speech to students. Others are still thinking it over or are letting parents have their kids opt out.
Some conservatives, driven by radio pundits and bloggers, are urging schools and parents to boycott the address. They say Obama is using the opportunity to promote a political agenda and is overstepping the boundaries of federal involvement in schools.
“As far as I am concerned, this is not civics education – it gives the appearance of creating a cult of personality,” said Oklahoma state Sen. Steve Russell. “This is something you’d expect to see in North Korea or in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.”
Arizona state schools superintendent Tom Horne, a Republican, said lesson plans for teachers created by Obama’s Education Department “call for a worshipful rather than critical approach.”
The White House plans to release the speech online Monday so parents can read it. He will deliver the speech at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia.
“I think it’s really unfortunate that politics has been brought into this,” White House deputy policy director Heather Higginbottom said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“It’s simply a plea to students to really take their learning seriously. Find out what they’re good at. Set goals. And take the school year seriously.”
She noted that President George H.W. Bush made a similar address to schools in 1991. Like Obama, Bush drew criticism, with Democrats accusing the Republican president of making the event into a campaign commercial.
Critics are particularly upset about lesson plans the administration created to accompany the speech. The lesson plans, available online, originally recommended having students “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.”
The White House revised the plans Wednesday to say students could “write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals.”
“That was inartfully worded, and we corrected it,” Higginbottom said.
In the Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas, the 54,000-student school district is not showing the 15-to 20-minute address but will make the video available later.
PTA council president Cara Mendelsohn said Obama is “cutting out the parent” by speaking to kids during school hours.
“Why can’t a parent be watching this with their kid in the evening?” Mendelsohn said. “Because that’s what makes a powerful statement, when a parent is sitting there saying, ‘This is what I dream for you. This is what I want you to achieve.”‘
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, said in an interview with the AP that he’s “certainly not going to advise anybody not to send their kids to school that day.”
“Hearing the president speak is always a memorable moment,” he said.
But he also said he understood where the criticism was coming from.
“Nobody seems to know what he’s going to be talking about,” Perry said. “Why didn’t he spend more time talking to the local districts and superintendents, at least give them a heads-up about it?”
Several other Texas districts have decided not to show the speech, although the district in Houston is leaving the decision up to individual school principals. In suburban Houston, the Cypress-Fairbanks district planned to show the address and has had its social studies teachers assemble a curriculum and activities for students.
“If someone objected, we would not force them to listen to the speech,” spokeswoman Kelli Durham said.
In Wisconsin, the Green Bay school district decided not to show the speech live and to let teachers decide individually whether to show it later.
In Florida, Republican Party chairman Jim Greer released a statement that he was “absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology.”
Despite his rhetoric, two of the larger Florida districts, Miami-Dade and Hillsborough, plan to have classes watch the speech. Students whose parents object will not have to watch.
“We’re extending the same courtesy to the president as we do with any elected official that wants to enter our schools,” said Linda Cobbe, a Hillsborough schools spokeswoman. Cobbe said the district, which includes Tampa, has gotten calls from upset parents but said officials don’t think the White House is trying to force politics on kids.
The Minnesota Association of School Administrators is recommending against disrupting the first day of school to show the speech, but Minnesota’s biggest teachers’ union is urging schools to show it.
Quincy, Illinois, schools decided Thursday not to show the speech. Superintendent Lonny Lemon said phone calls “hit like a load of bricks” on Wednesday.
One Idaho school superintendent, Murray Dalgleish of Council, urged people not to rush to judgment.
“Is the president dictating to these kids? I don’t think so,” Dalgleish said. “He’s trying to get out the same message we’re trying to get out, which is, ‘You are in charge of your education.”‘
Libby Quaid reported from Washington. Associated Press Writers April Castro, Monica Rhor, Zinie Chen Sampson, Christine Armario, Jessie Bonner, Scott Bauer, Tim Talley, Martiga Lohn, Tammy Webber and Alan Zagier contributed to this report.