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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Noah Adams.

Today, the White House tried to calm a storm over a speech that President Obama will deliver to the nation's school children tomorrow. The early release of the text of that speech is meant to reassure some parents and conservatives who called it a political intrusion into the school day.

But as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, the actual message of the address isn't the real issue.

LARRY ABRAMSON: As promised, the president urges kids to study hard, a message many students hear daily, from teachers, from parents, from celebrities. The president cites by name several students who have overcome adversity, including himself. He says he grew up poor but succeeded, thanks to hard work and a dedicated mother. But he also takes credit for trying to raise standards and boost education funding. That irks commentator Neal McCluskey of the CATO Institute.

Mr. NEAL McCLUSKEY (Associate Director, Center for Educational Freedom, CATO Institute): I'm working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers; you need to learn. Again, this sounds very political. This is about I, President Obama, am doing these things for you.

ABRAMSON: Regardless of the actual message, McCluskey has a bigger problem with the way the speech was packaged. The Education Department initially distributed a lesson plan that urged teachers to discuss with students how they could help the president. On CBS's "Face the Nation" yesterday, Education Secretary Arne Duncan said even though that message was harmless, it was modified.

(Soundbite of TV program, "Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer")

Secretary ARNE DUNCAN (Department of Education): It was talking about helping the president hit his goal of having the highest percent of college graduates by 2020. He's drawn a line in the sand in that. We just clarified that to say write a letter about your own goals and what you're going to do to achieve those goals.

ABRAMSON: But that change mollified few critics. Barbara Cargill of the Texas State Board of Education said the White House can't change the way news of the speech was sent out.

Ms. BARBARA CARGILL (Representative, Texas State Board of Education): Bypassing state boards and local school boards, and sending the e-mails straight to school districts.

ABRAMSON: Cargill says she works hard to scrutinize textbooks and give parents access to lesson plans. The president's speech, she says, circumvents that process. The White House has also taken steps to ease those concerns by releasing the speech early. And Secretary Duncan emphasized yesterday this event is voluntary.

(Soundbite of TV program, "Face the Nation with Bob Schieffer")

Sec. DUNCAN: Schools can do this. They can not do it. They can watch it during school day. Children can watch it at home with their families. They can watch it a month from now. They could never watch it. It's purely voluntary.

ABRAMSON: But even that step made things worse for some school systems. No matter what they choose to do, some parents will be upset. And Texas educator Barbara Cargill says parents don't like the choice that they face either.

Ms. CARGILL: If they opt their children out, they're going to feel ostracized. They're going to have to leave the comfort of their classroom to be dismissed to a gym.

ABRAMSON: Outside of Houston, the Pearland Independent School District says it can't broadcast the speech live to all classrooms. Teachers are free to show the speech afterwards. Parents can refuse to have their students hear the speech there. Parent Brett Curtis says he's so upset by all of this, he's keeping his kids home tomorrow, to send the district a message.

Mr. BRETT CURTIS: To let the school board know that I expect them to take responsibility for the curriculum and the content of what they're going to be putting into our schools.

ABRAMSON: The administration has made education one of its top priorities and has boosted federal funding for schools. Now, the president's speech may be deepening the divide over the proper role of the federal government in education.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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