Some Schools to Big Brother Barack: Stay Out!

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Jim Watson / AFP / Getty

President Obama appears at a meeting in the Oval Office

Correction Appended: Sept. 8, 2009

When Barack Obama won Florida last November — the first northern Democrat to take the Sunshine State since FDR — many saw it as a sign of centrist GOP governor Charlie Crist's moderating influence. But lately, Florida's disgruntled Republicans aren't looking very moderate. This week, in fact, the peninsula's GOP registered arguably the loudest outcry over the education speech President Obama plans to deliver to U.S. primary and secondary students via webcast and C-Span next Tuesday, Sept. 8. In perhaps the most over-the-top performance, state Republican chairman Jim Greer called it an attempt to use "our children to spread liberal propaganda" and "President Obama's socialist ideology."

Owing in large part to the Administration's ham-handed advance work, the strident conservative anger that erupted this summer over health-care reform has shifted from town halls to school halls. On the surface, Obama's intentions for Tuesday seem nothing more threatening than a presidential pep talk about taking education seriously. But some ill-advised prep material from the Education Department — like suggestions that teachers have students write letters on "how to help the President" and recommendations that those pupils read his books — has left the door ajar (and that's all it seems to take these days) for Republican charges that Obama "wants to indoctrinate our kids," as Carla Dean, GOP chairwoman of Florida's Collier County, puts it.

The public-school systems in both Collier and next-door Lee counties, a conservative pocket in southwest Florida that includes Naples, announced on Thursday, Sept. 3, that their students won't be seeing Obama's speech. In a statement, Collier County schools superintendent Dennis Thompson cited "the logistics of making a webcast available during that time of the school day." But his office also acknowledged that he'd been hearing from the community and its fears about Big Brother Barack. "We tend to be very conservative here," says Dean. "This President is extremely liberal, and we worry that he's leading us to socialism." Thompson said his school district will post the speech on its website after Obama delivers it. But Collier Democratic chairman Steve Hemping says it's the Republicans who are using students for cynical political gain. "No one should ever turn communication between a President and young people about what you can aspire to in the future into an ugly us-against-them exercise," Hemping argues. "This is a lost opportunity, because [Obama] is a role model who raised himself from a poor, single-parent situation precisely through education."

School districts in at least half a dozen other states have made similar decisions not to air the President's talk. In one of those states, Minnesota, Republican governor and possible 2012 presidential aspirant Tim Pawlenty called the speech "uninvited" and voiced concerns about its "content and motive." One school superintendent in Arizona, James Murlless, while calling Obama's education advocacy "well intended," said he preferred his students see it "in their own homes, under the supervision of their parents." The Nationwide Tea Party Coalition, a fiscal watchdog group that has become a sort of clearinghouse for conservative grievances since the anti-health-care-reform movement began, has revved up a campaign called "Hall Pass on That," urging parents to have their kids excused from watching the speech. In Oklahoma, state senator Steve Russell rivaled Florida's Greer for hyperbole, calling Obama's talk "something you'd expect to see in North Korea or in Saddam Hussein's Iraq."

Asked if the Collier school district would have made the same ruling about webcast "logistics" if Obama's Republican predecessor, George W. Bush, had proposed making a similar speech to U.S. students, a spokesman for Thompson told TIME, "exactly." But Dean calls it "a moot question" because "I don't think President Bush would have ever done it. He understood that this sort of thing starts in the home." But when reminded that Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, broadcast a similar speech to the nation's pupils, Dean says, "That was different. It was, if I remember, largely a say-no-to-drugs speech."

The White House has insisted that Obama's address won't dip into policy and is geared primarily toward reducing the nation's troubling dropout rate. White House Deputy Policy Director Heather Higginbottom told the Associated Press that "it's really unfortunate that politics has been brought into this. It's simply a plea to students to take their learning seriously. Find out what they're good at. Set goals." The irony of the backlash, in fact, is that much of Obama's education platform, especially its emphasis on personal responsibility over entitlement, dovetails with conservative tenets.

That point was often raised Thursday night further north on Florida's Gulf Coast, in Tampa. There, as a result, the Hillsborough County School Board ruled at a meeting that it would allow the speech. Dean and other speech opponents insist the Administration has not given educators an advance look at it, but Hillsborough schools superintendent Mary Ellen Elia announced that she and board members had indeed seen it and concluded that it conveys a healthy, nonpartisan message. Said Democratic board member Doretha Edgecomb: "It's a message that a lot of Presidents have given before." But some members complained nonetheless that they felt the Administration was pressuring schools to watch the speech.

That's not an objection anyone remembers Republicans making when both Bush I and Ronald Reagan delivered their direct-to-the-classroom talks in the 1980s and '90s. But if there is one conservative criticism that even liberals can relate to, it's that the speech seems part of this President's overexposure. "Every time you turn around, there he is, there he is, there he is," Dean grouses. And lately, at least, every time Obama turns around, he seems to give conservatives an opening to pounce on him. Which is why many Democrats as well as Republicans suggest it might be good to webcast a speech on learning to the White House as well.

— With reporting by Michael Peltier / Tallahassee

The original version of this article incorrectly stated that Barack Obama was the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Florida since FDR. He was in fact the first Democrat from the northern U.S. to win the Sunshine State since FDR.