President Barack Obama has a message for students.
But kids in Collier and Lee counties won’t hear it in school.
That was the decision both school districts made Thursday in anticipation of the president’s speech to students, which is scheduled to be broadcast to schools across America at noon Tuesday.
The decision comes as Republican critics across the country are calling the speech an effort to foist a political agenda on children, creating yet another confrontation with the White House.
Obama is scheduled to address students on the importance of taking responsibility for their success, according to a statement from the White House. The United States Department of Education will also provide resources to classrooms that were developed by and for teachers to “engage students and stimulate discussion about persisting and succeeding in school.”
The department also recommended that students be asked to write a letter to themselves on “how to help the president.”
The speech will be broadcast live on www.whitehouse.gov and on C-SPAN.
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.
In a statement released Thursday, Collier County Superintendent Dennis Thompson explained the school district’s plan with staff members.
“We have received many inquiries concerning President Obama’s address to students next Tuesday, September 8th. After studying the situation, I have concluded that due to the logistics of making a Webcast available during that time of the school day, we will not be showing this address in Collier County School District classrooms or campuses,” he wrote in a memorandum. “However, as soon as the speech is available, we will place a link on the district Web site should you and your family choose to view the speech.”
District spokesman Joe Landon said Thompson’s office had received inquiries from principals, parents and community members about showing the speech.
“There was a pretty good balance from people who wanted to weigh in,” he said. “Some just wanted to know whether or not we would be showing it to the students.”
Collier County Republican Party Chairwoman Carla Dean applauded the decision, saying it seems more appropriate to allow families to watch the speech together.
“I think that’s a more appropriate thing,” she said. “Kids are real impressionable and I think that’s the route to take.”
Children are in school to do one thing: to learn, Dean said. Taking time away from that mission does not make sense, even if the president is delivering a common-sense message on the importance of education, Dean said.
“There is a concern,” she added. “What does the president want to talk about? All I’ve heard is vague generalities.”
Dean is not alone in her concern.
Some conservatives across the country, 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.”
The Lee County School District said in a statement it will “record it and apply the standard process for reviewing instructional materials; and make it available as a supplement to instruction to enhance established Sunshine State Standards.”
Principals across the Lee County School District received an e-mail from Superintendent James Browder Thursday informing them of the district’s decision. Bonita Springs Middle School Principal Ruthie Lohmeyer said she has communicated the decision to tape the speech to all of her teachers so they can easily field parent questions.
“I had one student who said his dad will not let him watch it,” Lohmeyer said. “I’m sure you have a slew of parents who want them to see it, too. Whatever the president has to say is important, but we’re not going to take instructional time away during the school day.”
Steve Hemping, chairman of the Collier County Democratic Party called the decision not to broadcast Obama’s speech “a lost opportunity for all students.”
“President Obama embodies the American spirit that in our country, you can achieve anything through education and hard work,” Hemping said. “President Obama is an exemplary role model for using education as a path to success. ... To shut off communication between students and the President of the United States is a tremendous loss for students and teachers.”
Opponents of the speech said children should not be forced to listen to a presidential message. Republican Party of Florida Chairman Jim Greer released a blistering statement on the party’s Web site, condemning Obama’s “use of taxpayer dollars to indoctrinate America’s children to his socialist agenda.”
“While I support educating our children to respect both the office of the American President and the value of community service, I do not support using our children as tools to spread liberal propaganda,” he wrote. “The address scheduled for September 8, 2009, does not allow for healthy debate on the President’s agenda, but rather obligates the youngest children in our public school system to agree with our President’s initiatives or be ostracized by their teachers and classmates.”
The White House plans to release the speech several hours beforehand, online, so parents can read it.
“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 turning the event into a campaign commercial.
Despite the rhetoric, two of Florida’s larger 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 Associated Press contributed to this report.
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