Obama pitches elements of jobs bill in school speech

Tells Banneker students in D.C. of his focus on education

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In his third annual back-to-school speech, President Obama on Wednesday gave the nation’s students a subtle pitch for key elements of his $447 billion jobs package.

“We’re working to make sure that you have the most up-to-date schools with the latest tools of learning,” Mr. Obama said at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District. “We’re taking every step we can to ensure that you’re getting an educational system that is worthy of your potential.”

Mr. Obama said that he, Education Secretary Arne Duncan “and people at every level of government” are working to improve public schools.

The president’s annual speech to students is billed as a nonpartisan pep talk, and Mr. Obama spent the bulk of his address urging students repeatedly to work hard and push their limits. But some of the language Mr. Obama used mirrored his rhetoric on the stump urging Congress to pass his second stimulus bill, which includes tens of billions for school modernization and teacher retention. His speech was televised and streamed live to schools across the country.

In Denver on Tuesday, for example, at a campaign-style event to promote his jobs bill, Mr. Obama said, “We can rebuild our schools for the 21st century, with faster Internet, and smarter labs, and cutting-edge technology. And that won’t just create a better learning environment for students — it will create good jobs for local construction workers.”

President Obama arrives Sept. 28, 2011, to deliver his back-to school speech at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in D.C. (Associated Press)

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President Obama arrives Sept. 28, 2011, to deliver his back-to school speech ... more >

When Mr. Obama made his first back-to-school speech in 2009, some schools and parents refused to allow students to listen, fearing he might push his political agenda.

The president said Wednesday, “We’re making sure that our country’s colleges and universities are affordable and accessible” — a reference to his push in the jobs bill for increased Pell Grant funding. “And we’re working to get the best teachers into your classrooms, so they can prepare you for college and a future career,” he added.

While lawmakers in both parties support school modernization and smaller class sizes, there is heavy resistance in Congress to paying for Mr. Obama’s jobs plan through higher taxes, as he has proposed. They also note that about $100 billion from the first economic stimulus bill in 2009 was devoted to preventing teacher layoffs.

Presidential press secretary Jay Carney didn’t address the back-to-school speech directly, but said Mr. Obama wants to make his case on the jobs bill to a variety of audiences.

“The president has gone out in different parts of the country and will continue to go out all over the country and speak to different audiences about the absolute need to take action on the jobs act,” Mr. Carney said. “Given the broad support for it, given the many sectors of society it assists, there are many available audiences who want to hear this message and the president will bring it to them.”

The president told students the government is working to improve schools because, “We don’t expect you to have to make it on your own.”

He also praised the role of teachers, whom he said “might be working harder than just about anybody these days.” Mr. Obama said first and foremost, students’ parents are there to guide them through the learning process.

Banneker opened in 1981 as a magnet school for students in grades 9 to 12 enrolled in rigorous college preparatory programs. Newsweek named it this year as one of the country’s best high schools for its high graduation rates and test scores.

The president was introduced by student body president Donae Owens, who called Mr. Obama’s visit a “historic event for all of us.”

“Banneker is one of the top public schools in the District of Columbia,” she said. “As Banneker achievers, we have excelled in both academic and extracurricular activities.”

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