FRANKFORT — State school superintendents should provide alternative activities for children whose parents do not want them to watch President Barack Obama's speech to the nation's schoolchildren next week, Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday said in an e-mail Thursday.
"Although the event appears to be non-partisan and is designed to motivate students to do well in school, parental concerns should be addressed," Holliday said.
Obama's back-to-school message is scheduled for noon Tuesday. It will also be available at www.whitehouse.gov and on C-SPAN. The White House plans to release the speech online Monday so parents can read it. He will deliver the speech at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va.
"I think it's really unfortunate that politics has been brought into this," White House deputy policy director Heather Higginbottom said.
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Obama announced the speech weeks ago as a chance to encourage America's school kids to do their best, but conservative radio talk shows and Web sites have encouraged opposition across the nation.
Critics are particularly upset about lesson plans the administration created to accompany the speech. The lesson plans, available online, originally recommended having students "write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president."
The White House revised the plans Wednesday to say students could "write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals."
"That was inartfully worded, and we corrected it," Higginbottom said.
In Lexington, conservative radio commentator Leland Conway has called the speech idea "creepy" and suggested that follow-up lesson plans from the Department of Education are "too political."
Holliday said school districts may make use of "lesson plans and other activities/materials connected with the webcast" at their discretion.
Alternative activities, he said, may include reading groups, one-on-one tutoring, physical activities, special curriculum activities or any other activity that would be offered at other times when students are permitted to opt out of presentations.
Communication to parents from school districts about the event could help to allay concerns, Holliday said.
Educational leaders in some other states have made similar recommendations to school districts this week. Some districts in states including Texas, Illinois, Minnesota, Missouri, Virginia, Wisconsin have decided not to show the speech to students.
Several school districts in Kentucky are heeding Holliday's suggestion to communicate clearly.
Fayette County Superintendent Stu Silberman sent a note to parents Thursday, saying the school district will be participating in Obama's speech and that parents should contact principals if they have concerns.
The school district had said earlier in the week that parents can ask to have their children opt out of the speech if plans are made in advance.
Silberman said in his letter that communication from the White House indicated that "the President will challenge students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning.
"He will also call for a shared responsibility and commitment on the part of students, parents and educators to ensure that every child in every school receives the best education possible so they can compete in the global economy for good jobs and live rewarding and productive lives as American citizens."
Obama's address will likely be the largest of its type, but other presidents have made similar speeches.
In 1991, President George H.W. Bush addressed students around the nation, urging them to study hard, avoid drugs and turn in troublemakers. In his speech, he told students to ignore peers "who think it's not cool to be smart."
Democrats responded then by criticizing him for spending Department of Education money on a broadcast they claimed was political advertising, used to counter claims that he was ignoring domestic issues.
Silberman said in his letter to parents that he views the Obama speech as "a chance for our students to receive encouragement from the office of the President."
Parents should take time to discuss the speech with their children, he added.
Madison County Superintendent Thomas Floyd said his district often tries "to provide real-world opportunities to our students when they are available. "We see this as one of them," he said.
Floyd said he will not give an edict to schools concerning the speech, noting that parents always have been given an alternative option if they don't want their children to participate in an event.
In Shelby County, individual principals and teachers will decide if they want to use Obama's speech as instruction, said Duanne B. Puckett, community relations coordinator for the public school system.
She said Superintendent James Neihof and principals have received some inquiries from parents about the president's speech. Puckett said only one caller was adamantly opposed to the speech being shown.
Neihof will notify parents about the speech either with a note Friday or on the district phone system for parents, she said.