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Many conservatives enraged over Obama school speech

  • Story Highlights
  • National PTA president calls uproar over President Obama's speech sad
  • Conservatives object to Obama's speech to schoolchildren, say it's propaganda
  • Educators find themselves at center of debate over next week's address
  • White House says speech will urge students to study hard and stay in school
By Alan Silverleib
CNN
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(CNN) -- The White House found itself on the defensive Friday over what would ordinarily be considered the most uncontroversial of events: a back-to-school speech to the nation's children.

The White House says President Obama's address next week to schoolchildren isn't a policy speech.

The White House says President Obama's address next week to schoolchildren isn't a policy speech.

The White House said the address, set for Tuesday, and accompanying suggested lesson plans are simply meant to encourage students to study hard and stay in school.

Many conservative parents aren't buying it. 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," suburban Colorado mother Shanneen Barron told CNN Denver affiliate KMGH. "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." Video Watch how some parents are upset »

School administrators are caught in the middle of the controversy. Some have decided to show the president's speech, while others will not. Many, such as Wellesley, Massachusetts, superintendent Bella Wong, are deciding on a class-by-class basis, leaving the decision in the hands of individual teachers.

"The president of the United States has asked us to facilitate his outreach to students. And in that vein, we have decided to honor the request," Wong told CNN. "We'll trust in his judgment."

Republican leaders have not shied away from the debate. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a possible contender for the GOP's 2012 presidential nomination, said Friday the classroom is no place to show a video address from Obama. Video Watch the debate over the president's speech »

"At a minimum it's disruptive. Number two, it's uninvited. And number three, if people would like to hear his message they can, on a voluntary basis, go to YouTube or some other source and get it. I don't think he needs to force it upon the nation's school children," he told reporters at the Minnesota State fair.

Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer released a statement this week accusing Obama of using taxpayer money to "indoctrinate" children.

"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 school children 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." Video Watch why some conservatives are angered by Obama's school speech »

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 noted that Obama's speech, which will be available for anyone to view on the Web on Monday, is not unprecedented. President George H.W. Bush delivered a nationally televised speech to students from a Washington D.C., school in the fall of 1991, encouraging them to say no to drugs and work hard.

In November 1988, President Ronald Reagan delivered more politically charged remarks that were made available to students nationwide. Among other things, Reagan called taxes "such a penalty on people that there's no incentive for them to prosper ... because they have to give so much to the government."

Charles Saylors, president of the national Parent Teacher Association, said the uproar over Obama's 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," he told CNN.

Some of the controversy surrounding Obama's speech stems from a proposed lesson plan created by the 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 stated.

After pressure from conservatives, the White House said that 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."

A number of the president's critics, however, were not placated.

"As far as I'm concerned this is not civics education -- it gives the appearance of creating a cult of personality," said Oklahoma state Sen. Steve Russell, a Republican.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed the whole dispute Friday as part of "the silly season."

The administration, while acknowledging it made a mistake with the initial lesson plan, has been frustrated by the controversy, said CNN Senior White House Correspondent Ed Henry.

It was a much different atmosphere when Bush made similar remarks 18 years ago, Henry noted.

"Let's face it. You didn't really have blogs. You didn't have as many cable networks out there as you do now," Henry said. "I think people just sort of take something and blow it out of proportion in this environment right now."

The controversy is the latest example of how sharply polarized political debate has become.

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"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 CNN Polling Director Keating Holland.

"In that kind of environment, almost nothing Obama does is immune from politics."

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