Call it a lesson in contemporary political discourse.
Educators across America found themselves at the center of a political storm this week as conservatives exploded in anger over President Obama’s plans to give a speech to the country’s schoolchildren. A stunned White House insisted the address, planned for Tuesday, and accompanying suggested lesson plans are meant simply to encourage students to study hard and stay in school. But some parents said they aren’t buying it. They said they’re convinced the president is going to use the opportunity to press a partisan political agenda on impressionable young minds. “Thinking about my kids in school having to listen to that just really upsets me,” a suburban Colorado mother, Shanneen Barron, told CNN affiliate KMGH-TV in Denver. “I’m an American. They are Americans, and I don’t feel that’s OK. I feel very scared to be in this country with our leadership right now.” School administrators are caught in the middle of the controversy. Some have decided to show the president’s speech, while others will not. Many are deciding on a class-by-class basis, leaving the decision in the hands of individual teachers.
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GOP leaders have not shied away from the debate. Florida Republican Party Chairman Jim Greer released a statement Monday accusing Obama of using taxpayer money to “indoctrinate” children. Watch the debate over the president’s speech “As the father of four children, I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama’s socialist ideology,” Greer said. “The idea that schoolchildren across our nation will be forced to watch the president justify his plans … is not only infuriating but goes against beliefs of the majority of Americans, while bypassing American parents through an invasive abuse of power.” Nonsense, the White House replied. “The goal of the speech and the lesson plans is to challenge students to work hard, stay in school and dramatically reduce the dropout rate,” an administration spokesman said. “This isn’t a policy speech. It’s a speech designed to encourage kids to stay in school.” White House officials said that Obama’s speech, the text of which will be available on the Web on Monday, is not unprecedented. In 1991, President George H.W. Bush delivered a nationally televised speech to students from a Washington school, encouraging them to say no to drugs and work hard. Charles Saylors, president of the National Parent Teacher Association, said the uproar over the speech is sad. “The president of the United States, regardless of political affiliation, should be able to have a presentation and have a pep talk, if you will, to America’s students,” Saylors said. Some of the controversy surrounding Obama’s speech stems from a proposed lesson plan by the U.S. Education Department to accompany the address. An initial version of the plan recommended that students draft letters to themselves discussing “what they can do to help the president.” The letters “would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals,” the plan said. Under pressure from conservatives, the White House agreed the plan was not artfully worded and distributed a revised version encouraging students to write letters about how they can “achieve their short-term and long-term education goals.” The controversy is the latest example of how sharply polarized political debate has become.
“Ninety percent of Americans who identify with the president’s party approve of him, but 85 percent of those who belong to the opposition party disapprove,” said Keating Holland, CNN’s polling director. “In that kind of environment, almost nothing Obama does is immune from politics.”