Obama's Schools Speech Faces Backlash

President Obama's plans to give a speech to the nation's schoolchildren is facing a huge backlash. Parents in many states are threatening to pull their children out of school. In Texas, several school districts have promised not to show the address live. Now, those moves are angering other parents who don't understand the controversy.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

But first, on the domestic front, two big speeches from President Obama next week. One, an address to Congress on health care, the other, a talk that was meant to be broadcast to schoolchildren around the country. And while the health care speech will likely be a key moment in a major policy debate, it's the talk to the kids that seems to be generating the most heat right now, from Florida to Colorado, Arizona to Illinois. Some parents are threatening to keep their kids home. And school districts are rethinking their plans to show the address. NPR's Wade Goodwyn tells us now about the controversy in the Dallas area.

WADE GOODWYN: Laura Joe with the Mesquite Independent School District says she knew something was up when just before lunch earlier this week, they were hit with the barrage of phone calls from parents.

Ms. LAURA JOE (Mesquite Independent School District): All of a sudden, we get one call after another after another. They were saying the same things. They use the same types of language.

GOODWYN: Joe says that while parents will call to complain about this or that, they never threatened to withhold their children from school. Something was up.

Ms. JOE: Apparently there had been a lot of talk on some radio programming about what the message might be. And what we're hearing from parents is that they don't want their students to be - to hear a political type of message.

GOODWYN: Conservative talk show hosts focus their complaints both on the idea of President Obama talking directly to school children and the educational supplements that accompany the president's speech. While the school districts can take them or leave them, one lesson plan suggested the students write about how they might help the president to improve public education. For parents who don't want to help the president, that sounded like indoctrination. So the White House changed that, but it was too late. After the barrage of complaints, the Mesquite School District joined most of the other school districts in the predominantly Republican suburbs around Dallas by announcing they would not broadcast the presidential pep talk.

(Soundbite of noise)

Unidentified Woman: Oh, please move. How do you want…

GOODWYN: As they call it a day, the kids at Kimbrough Middle School in Mesquite don't seem transfixed by the battle that is going on for their hearts and souls. In the carpool line, mother Wendy Carlen(ph) considers the president's speech a distraction.

Ms. WENDY CARLEN: They can see President Obama on TV at home every night because he's on TV every day. So I don't think it's necessary to interrupt the school day.

GOODWYN: But at the bottom of it all, Carlen says she doesn't trust the president. She believes that if he's not trying to influence the students directly, a liberal message might be subliminal.

Ms. CARLEN: Well, it doesn't matter. What I've heard he's going to say, he usually changes it up anyway.

GOODWYN: But if the suburbs around Dallas are predominantly Republican, thousands of liberal Democrats live there, too. And some have begun creating a backlash to the backlash. Rod Morris is the system's architect who called Plano ISD. He's mystified there's a controversy.

Mr. ROD MORRIS (Systems Architect): I just said that it was a missed opportunity, and I think is unfortunate.

GOODWYN: This is not the first time a president has spoken directly to American schoolchildren. President Reagan and the first President Bush did also. There were complaints from politicians about those speeches, too, but no accompanying groundswell from parents.

Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.

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