- The Washington Times - Monday, September 7, 2009

Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Sunday decried as “silly” the public “hoopla” over White House plans to air a message for the nation’s schoolchildren and said students would not be forced to watch it.

The White House originally suggested that students write letters to President Obama after his 18-minute speech, outlining how they could help him. But a public backlash, spurred by conservative talk radio and a handful of elected officials, forced the administration to backtrack on the plan last week.

“But I think all the drama, all the hoopla, at the end of the day, if the president motivates one C-student to become a B-student, one B-student to become an A-student or one student who is thinking about dropping out to stay in school and take their education seriously, it’s all worth it,” Mr. Duncan said on CBS’ “Face The Nation.”

C-SPAN and the White House Web site plan to air the message Tuesday, but Mr. Duncan said viewing it is “completely voluntary.”

Click here to see AP video.

He did acknowledge, however, that “there is one [assignment] that wasn’t worded quite correctly,” adding that the intended reference was “about helping the president hit his goal of having the highest percent of college graduates by 2020.”

It would be the first time in 18 years a president has addressed the nation’s students. Mr. Duncan said the text of the speech would be available on Monday.

Senior Obama adviser David Axelrod said on “Meet the Press” about the speech that “there’s nothing political about it, and it’s a shame that some people have tried to politicize it.”

The speech itself has drawn little criticism, but a guidebook distributed to teachers in advance of the speech, with a curriculum suggestion for students watching the president’s message, sparked an outcry that dominated much of the media cycle through the end of last week. Among other things, conservative activists accused Mr. Obama of trying to build a “cult of personality” to enlist children to push his “socialist agenda.”

The White House pulled back from the plans, but some families have said they plan to keep their children home from school to avoid the president’s message - an idea Mr. Duncan called “silly.”

“That’s just silly. They can go to school. They can not watch. It’s just, you know, going to be an 18-minute speech,” Mr. Duncan said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican and education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, the last sitting president to address the nation’s schoolchildren, said the president “of course … should be able to address students” while “parents and teachers should decide in what context.”

“If I were a teacher, I’d take advantage of it, and I’d put up Lincoln and Eisenhower and Reagan and teach about the presidency, and then I’d put up the head of North Korea and say, ‘In that country, you go to jail if you criticize the president. In our country, you have a constitutional right to do it,’ ” Mr. Alexander said on “Fox News Sunday.”

Nevertheless, Mr. Alexander said some of the concern was understandable “because, you know, people say, ‘Oh, here’s another Washington takeover.’ ”

• Tom LoBianco can be reached at tlobianco@washingtontimes.com.

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