A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama’s Speech to Schools


Q: Did Obama change his back-to-school speech in response to pressure from conservatives?

A: One exercise in the accompanying lesson plan was reworded.

FULL QUESTION

I have just read the text of the speech President Obama is set to deliver to students on September 8 from Virginia. Has the content been altered as a result of the conservative uproar? I am hearing from some sources that the original agenda had subjects like stem cell research and man-made global warming.

FULL ANSWER

On September 8, President Obama’s address to a class at Wakefield High School in Virginia was broadcast in schools across the nation. The announcement of the speech was met with opposition from Republican politicians and from parents. Florida GOP Chairman Jim Greer objected to taxpayer money being used to "indoctrinate" children into Obama’s "socialist agenda," and some parents threatened to keep their children home from school if the speech was shown. However, an advance copy of the president’s remarks, disseminated on September 7, made it clear that the focus was on responsibility, perseverance and the importance of education, not on touchy political issues. Does this mean the text was revised in response to political pressure?

As ABC News’ Jake Tapper and Sunlen Miller reported, the wording was changed in one section of the lesson plan that was drawn up to accompany the speech for kids in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. (There was a separate lesson plan for older students.) We confirmed with the White House that the exercise calling for students to "write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president" was amended; it now suggests that students "write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short‐term and long‐term education goals." Schools were not required to use the lesson plan, whether or not they chose to have children watch the broadcast, and that exercise was one of eight suggested activities.

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor told us that the speech itself had not been substantively changed: "The President’s speech was always going to be about talking with students about the importance of working hard, staying in school and taking responsibility for their education." 

We’ve also gotten a number of queries about whether any previous president has addressed the nation’s schoolchildren. President George H.W. Bush did so in 1991, when his address to an eighth-grade class at Alice Deal Junior High in Washington, D.C., was broadcast nationwide. The administration sent letters to all public schools urging them to watch the speech, which ended with Bush encouraging students to "write me a letter about ways you can help us achieve our goals."

Bush also weathered criticism from the opposing party, in that episode for what they saw as a misuse of taxpayer funds. Then-House Majority Leader Dick Gephardt called the speech "paid political advertising," and Colorado Democratic Rep. Patricia Schroeder said it represented "the arrogance of power." Michigan Democrat William D. Ford demanded that Education Secretary Lamar Alexander defend the spending, threatening to obstruct legislation if Alexander did not comply. However, there are no reports of parents keeping or threatening to keep their children home from school because of Bush’s address.

President Ronald Reagan also gave a televised address to schoolchildren in November 1988. His speech had more political content than Bush’s or Obama’s, touching on taxes and the spread of democracy. We found no reports of objections to that speech.

Jess Henig

Sources

Silverlieb, Alan. "Many conservatives enraged over Obama school speech." CNN.com. 5 Sep 2009.

Tapper, Jake and Sunlen Miller. "WH, Dept of Education Revise Language on Students Outlining How they Can ‘Help the President.’" ABC Blogs. 2 Sep 2009. Accessed 8 Sep 2009.

U.S. Department of Education. "President Barack Obama to Make Historic Speech to America’s Students." Accessed 8 Sep 2009.

"Bush to Schoolchildren: Help Out, Write Me a Letter." Orlando Sentinel. 3 Oct. 1991.

Cooper, Kenneth J. and Eric Pianin. "Funding of Bush Speech Draws Fire." The Washington Post. 3 Oct. 1991.

"Financing for a Bush Speech is Attacked." Associated Press. 4 Oct. 1991.