The Austin Chronicle

Obama's School Daze

By Richard Whittaker, September 11, 2009, News

President Barack Obama's Sept. 8 back-to-school message to the nation's children was, the Texas Education Agency confirmed, never mandatory. Nor was it unprecedented (both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush broadcast similar speeches). What made it unusual was that it became so nakedly politicized by opponents of the administration.

When the White House released the full text of the speech on Sept. 7, it showed a fairly standard message about the value of staying in school, citing famous high-achievers and the president's own upbringing. But the rhetoric about the speech was already in full flow. Gov. Rick Perry said he was "troubled" that the White House had not consulted with individual school districts. Meanwhile, Rep. Debbie Riddle, R-Tomball, put out a press release with the title "Riddle to constituents: Your children do not have to hear Obama's speech," which claimed that "100 percent of this president's agenda is not to be trusted."

State Board of Education Member Cynthia Dunbar called the speech an example of "political posturing and influencing our children." A bold accusation, considering the board's recent proposals to introduce ultraconservative icons such as the Moral Majority and anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly into the history curriculum.

This level of rhetoric put pressure and scrutiny on school districts. Austin Independent School District confirmed that teachers who felt the president's message would benefit their students would allow them "to take advantage of the opportunity afforded them through this address." If parents particularly supported or opposed having their children watch the speech, they could inform the district. It would not be an excuse for kids to skip class, however, as it would still be a school day (the exact alternative arrangements were left to individual campuses). Austin ISD board of trustees President Mark Williams said, "We're not going to preclude the opportunity for schools and campuses to offer it, which is what some people want us to do, but we're going to let it be a parental choice."

Leander ISD said it was not technically feasible to carry the broadcast live, and instead it would place the address on its website. In response, trustee Lisa Mallory canceled her Protest Obama's School Indoc­tri­na­tion Plan, as promoted through the website of self-proclaimed "revolutionaries" the Austin Liberty Coalition.

Williams called it regrettable that a back-to-school speech has become a political kickball and added, "In a different time and different context, this would have been no big deal."

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