What’s the controversy?

Local educators taken aback by furor over president’s speech to schoolchildren

WHY THE FUSS? <br>President Obama (shown here with Education Secretary Arne Duncan) delivered his pep talk to students at a high school in Virginia.

President Obama (shown here with Education Secretary Arne Duncan) delivered his pep talk to students at a high school in Virginia.

Photo courtesy of the white house

If you heard the uproar created in advance of President Obama’s televised speech to the nation’s schoolchildren Tuesday (Sept. 8), you might have wondered what all the fuss was about.

Words like “indoctrination,” “leftist propaganda” and “socialism” were flying around conservative Web sites and talk radio. Oklahoma Republican state Sen. Steve Russell said Obama’s speech was “something you’d expect to see in North Korea or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.” At least one far-right Web site compared Obama to Adolf Hitler.

As it was, Obama’s words—delivered at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va.—just seemed like old-fashioned commonsensical advice. The gist of his speech? Stay in school, work hard, get good grades, listen to your elders, don’t give up.

“You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job,” the president said at one point in his address.

“At the end of the day, the circumstances of your life—what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home—that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude in school,” he continued. “That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.”

He even tossed in an aside about students making sure to wash their hands so they don’t spread the flu.

Hardly the stuff of controversy.

The text of the speech was available on the Internet the day before the broadcast for parents and teachers to read.

One Fox News analyst—just minutes after Obama’s 15-minute speech—called it a “conservative-values speech.” Even former First Lady Laura Bush endorsed it. (Her father-in-law, former President George H. W. Bush, gave a similar education-promoting speech to the nation’s schoolchildren during his time in office, as did former President Ronald Reagan.)

Here in Chico, some educators were taken aback by the furor surrounding the speech.

“We’ve been spending a lot of time on a topic that doesn’t seem to need much time,” is how Bob Feaster, assistant superintendent of the Chico Unified School District, put it.

Feaster said that the school district was informed about the speech late Wednesday, and had only a short time to put the information on the CUSD Web site and—responding to the controversy—get the message out to teachers that they could choose to show the speech in class if they deemed it “instructionally relevant,” but were required to send home forms to allow students the option of doing an alternate educational activity instead.

Chico High School history teacher Gina Snider called the controversy “unbelievable.”

“I really can’t believe how some TV and radio personalities can dictate what I do in my class, and control whether or not the president of the United States can address the people he serves,” said Snider, speaking several days before the speech. “The way I understand it, the speech is supposed to be a rallying cry to be the best you can be in school and in life. What’s so bad about that?”

Snider said she planned to tape the speech and show it in class at a later date, after she sent home permission slips for parents to sign.

“In the meantime, you can bet we are going to talk about democracy, open debate of ideas, freedom of information and rational decision-making. This is the perfect time, as we are getting ready to study and analyze the Constitution.”

Over at Hooker Oak K-8 School, principal Sue Hegedus, speaking on the Friday before the president’s speech, said that teachers who were choosing to have their students watch Obama’s address had sent home permission slips.

“We have only one parent request not to have their child see the speech at this time,” said Hegedus.

Jim Hanlon, principal of Chico High School, speaking Tuesday morning, said he’d had only “five or six” calls from parents asking about the speech. “From the feedback from my staff, I don’t expect many of our staff to listen to the speech today,” he added.

Chapman Elementary School Principal Ted Sullivan also said that he thought only a few teachers in the upper elementary grades would be showing the speech and that few students were opting out.

On Tuesday morning, Feaster sat in on a seventh-grade English class at Chico Junior High School during Obama’s address. Two students from that class had opted out of the speech.

“Students listened politely and seemed attentive,” said Feaster. “The students were studying speech and essay writing, so the teacher had them discuss things like topic, audience and purpose. The teacher also randomly read off personal goals that the students had written down at the beginning of the school year. The speech was tied back to [the students’] personal goals and the content of the class.

“The message I got from the speech,” continued Feaster, “was primarily about responsibility, listening to your elders and resiliency, and not making excuses. … The kids heard that.

“Schools are designed to be apolitical,” offered Feaster. “We’re not here to promote a political viewpoint. … I think any time we get extremes talking loudly we tend not to get problems solved.”