President's talk alarms parents

School speech causes uproar

The New York TimesSeptember 4, 2009 

— President Barack Obama's plan to deliver a speech to public school students Tuesday has sparked a revolt among conservative parents, who have accused the president of trying to indoctrinate their children with socialist ideas and are asking school officials to excuse the children from listening.

The uproar over the speech, in which Obama intends to urge students to work hard and stay in school, has been particularly acute in Texas, where several major school districts, under pressure from parents, have laid plans to let children opt out of lending the president an ear.

Some parents said they were concerned because the speech had not been screened for political content. Nor, they said, had it been reviewed by the state Board of Education and local school boards, which, under state law, must approve the curriculum.

"The thing that concerned me most about it was it seemed like a direct channel from the president of the United States into the classroom, to my child," said Brett Curtiss, an engineer from Pearland, Texas, who said he would keep his three children home. "I don't want our schools turned over to some socialist movement."

The White House has said the speech will stress the importance of education and hard work in school, both to the individual and to the nation. The message is neither partisan nor compulsory, officials said.

"This isn't a policy speech," said Sandra Abrevaya, a spokeswoman for the Department of Education. "It's designed to encourage kids to stay in school. The choice on whether to show the speech to students is entirely in the hands of each school. This is absolutely voluntary."

Obama's speech was announced weeks ago, but the furor among conservatives reached a fever pitch Wednesday morning as right-wing Web sites and talk show hosts began inveighing against it.

Mark Steyn, a Canadian author and political commentator, speaking on Rush Limbaugh's radio show on Wednesday, accused Obama of trying to create a cult of personality, comparing him with Saddam Hussein and Kim Jong Il, the North Korean leader.

The Republican Party chairman in Florida, Jim Greer, said he "was appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology."

And Chris Stigall, a Kansas City talk show host, said, "I'm not letting my next-door neighbor talk to my kid alone; I'm sure as hell not letting Barack Obama talk to him alone."

Previous presidents have visited public schools to speak directly to students, although few of those events have been broadcast live. Obama's address at noon, Eastern time, at a high school in Virginia will be streamed live on the White House Web site.

In 1991, President George H.W. Bush, a Republican, made a similar nationally broadcast speech from a Washington high school, urging students to study hard, avoid drugs and to ignore peers "who think it's not cool to be smart." Democrats in Congress accused him of using taxpayer money -- $27,000 to produce the broadcast -- for "paid political advertising."

Herb Garrett, executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, said many of his members feel the controversy has put them in an awkward situation, vulnerable to attacks from conservative talk-show hosts if they open up instructional time for Obama's speech, and open to accusations that they have disrespected the president if they do not. "It's one of those no-wins," Garrett said.

In Texas, calls and e-mail messages flooded into the offices of many local school officials. "I didn't get a positive call all day," said Susan Dacus, a spokesman for the Wylie Independent School District outside Dallas.

School officials in Wylie decided to record the speech, review it and then let individual teachers show it, offering students the opportunity to avoid listening if they wished.

In Houston, teachers have been asked to tell parents if they intend to show the speech. The schools will provide an alternative class for those whose parents object, said a spokesman for the district, Lee Vela.

Some Houston parents, however, said telling children they should not hear out the president of the United States, even if their parents dislike his policies, sends the wrong message -- that one should not listen to someone with whom you disagree.

"It's difficult for me to understand how listening to the president, the commander in chief, the chief citizen of this country, is damaging to the youth of today," said Phyllis Griffin Epps, an analyst for the city who has two children in public school.

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