President Obama’s plan to inspire the nation’s schoolchildren with a video address next week erupted into controversy Wednesday, forcing the White House to pull out its eraser and rewrite a government recommendation that teachers nationwide assign students a paper on how to “help the president.”
Presidential aides acknowledged the White House helped the U.S. Education Department craft the proposal, which immediately was met by fierce criticism from Republicans and conservative organizations who accused Mr. Obama of trying to politicize the education system.
White House aides said the language was an honest misunderstanding in what was supposed to be a inspirational, pro-education message to America’s youths.
Among the activities the government initially suggested for prekindergarten to sixth-grade students: that they “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.” Another task recommended for students immediately after listening to the speech: to engage in a discussion about what “the president wants us to do.”
The novel curriculum plan brought sharp criticism from conservatives, including some who complained that classrooms were being used to spread political propaganda. In response, the White House last night confirmed they were revising the lesson plan that was distributed last week by the U.S. Department of Education.
“We’re clarifying that language,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
By Wednesday evening, the sentence asking children to think about how they can “help the president” had been replaced. The rewritten line said students should “write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals. These would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals.”
Mr. Vietor said the reaction to the lesson plan may not have been so strong had the curriculum been circulated after people heard the speech, which he said does not mention any political issues and does not stray from a clear message encouraging children to excel and stay in school.
The speech is “about the value of education and the importance of staying in school as part of his effort to dramatically cut the dropout rate. It’s not a policy speech,” Mr. Vietor said.
But the revisions did not appear in time to head off the rapid-fire reaction that spread all day on conservative-oriented talk radio and Web sites. Critics of the president argued that some of the messages included in the “menu of classroom activities” strayed dangerously close to politicizing the classroom.
“While I support educating our children to respect both the office of the American president and the value of community service, I do not support using our children as tools to spread liberal propaganda,” said Jim Greer, chairman of the Florida Republican Party.
The conservative radio host Dana Loesch even urged parents to keep their children home on Tuesday, the day Mr. Obama’s speech is schedule to air.
Not everyone was outraged by the president’s decision to send a videotaped message to America’s schoolchildren - something President George H.W. Bush did 18 years ago, though without the accompanying homework.
“I can’t think of anything less partisan than this,” said Mo Elleithee, a Democratic strategist. “It’s admirable that President Obama would challenge our schoolchildren to do their best, and it’s the kind of message that most level-headed Americans can easily get behind.”
Mr. Elleithee called the moral outrage “beyond silly” and said it was “the kind of hyper-partisanship that people so soundly rejected last November.”
The idea of adding a lesson plan to the package of materials being sent to schoolteachers was hatched during meetings between the White House and officials from the Department of Education. The lessons themselves were developed by educators, White House officials said. But some of the assignments, they later conceded, may appear to be inartfully worded without also knowing the context of the speech.
“Does the speech make you want to do anything?” is one suggested question for the discussion. “Are we able to do what the president is asking of us?”
The packet of activities was sent out electronically with an Aug. 26 electronic letter from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Mr. Duncan encourages school administrators to air the presidential broadcast, which was timed to coincide with the start of school for most of the country.
“The president will challenge students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning,” Mr. Duncan says in his letter.
Of the activities, Mr. Duncan added: “These are ideas developed by and for teachers to help engage students and stimulate discussion on the importance of education in their lives.”