Should kids hear Obama?

awilson1@herald-leader.comSeptember 3, 2009 

Plans by President Barack Obama to speak directly to the nation's schoolchildren Tuesday are sparking controversy in Kentucky.

Fayette County parents will receive a note from Superintendent Stu Silberman on Thursday explaining that the district will participate in the president's address and that parents can call the school if they have concerns. Parents can ask to have their children opt out of the planned noontime speech, and an alternative assignment will be arranged, provided that plans are made ahead of schedule. Other schools in the Bluegrass are following suit.

There were "between 25 and 50 calls" Tuesday and Wednesday to the Fayette County school district, according to Silberman. "We want to respect the office of the president and to respect parents as well," said Silberman. "We want this to be a good event."

Silberman said there are no plans for any discussions after the speech.

Madison County Superintendent Thomas Floyd said he, too, had a few calls from parents. On Wednesday, he sent his principals a similar directive, allowing parents to choose an alternative option for that time period. Bourbon County Superintendent Lana Fryman received only one call so far; she says the opt-out is a familiar path, often taken when parents object to assignments on religious grounds at, say, Halloween or to certain readings.

The White House had billed the speech as a chance for the president to challenge America's school kids to do their best.

The matter began simply enough when President Barack Obama promised a student reporter that he would speak to America's schoolchildren in Tuesday's speech, just after schools were back in session. The speech, according to the White House, was planned as a way for the president to personally exhort the nation's kids to take responsibility for their learning and to challenge them to do well.

The Department of Education followed up with a suggested lesson plan on how to talk about the president's ideas and about inspiration.

But Steve Robertson, Chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, said Obama's desire to speak directly to America's schoolchildren is "very concerning and kind of creepy."

Robertson said the speech was an effort on behalf of the president "to circumvent parents" and "gain direct access to our children."

State Democratic Chair Charlie Moore, when asked to respond, said, "I'm sure the president will espouse values and ideals that all Americans will find admirable."

He continued, "It is a hands-on civics lesson from our duly elected leader, a man chosen by the majority of Americans to speak for us."

Among those very troubled about the tone and intent of the lesson plans was WLAP 630-AM's conservative commentator Leland Conway.

"I found it creepy, to be honest," says Conway, "and too political."

Originally, Conway said, he advised concerned listeners to either take their children out of school and read the Constitution to them instead or attend school with them that day and watch what teachers did "because it's important for parents to know what goes on in the schools."

Conway, who spoke again to his radio listeners on Wednesday afternoon, is now advocating that they attend the presidential event with their children. It is, he suspects, something the schools will relish because parental involvement is always a sign of a healthy school.

Conway said he believes that the timing of the Obama speech "is a bit suspect because of the laying-out next week of the president's health care plan."

He referred to the president's attempt to speak directly to children as going "a bit far. I do not know if he will make it political, but I do know my listeners were caught off-guard by this."

His main objection, he stressed, was that the president was attempting to speak to children without their parents present. "I have no problem with children being exposed to the president giving a State of the Union speech" or being shown an inauguration or anything, he said, that is part of the American political and civic experience.

Moore, a parent of an 11-year-old, said he "would have been pleased" for his child to be addressed by the president of the United States, no matter what party.

"I would be pleased for my child to be addressed by either United States senator from Kentucky and they are not from my party," he said. "For a party to fear children hearing from the president of the United States, I think reflects on those parents and their extreme and unfounded concerns. I'm sure that children of this country will benefit and be inspired toward public service."

Reach Amy Wilson at 859-231-3305 or at 800-950-6397, Ext. 3305.

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