Obama to Push Personal Responsibility in Controversial School Speech

The White House released speech to school children after parents complained.

September 6, 2009, 8:02 PM

WASHINGTON, Sept. 7, 2009— -- The White House today released a copy of President Obama's back-to-school speech ahead of its delivery after some of its language became the target of conservatives.

In the speech that he'll deliver Tuesday, the president will push personal responsibility and hard work to schoolchildren.

"That's what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself," the president is expected to say, according to the prepared remarks.

"At the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents and the best schools in the world -- and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools, pay attention to those teachers, listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults and put in the hard work it takes to succeed."

Read the full text of President Obama's prepared remarks.

The president will encourage children to stay in school, even when it gets tough.

"If you quit on school -- you're not just quitting on yourself, you're quitting on your country," Obama is expected to say. "I'm working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you've got to do your part too."

The president will evoke memories of his own childhood -- his mother's struggle to raise him without a father -- as well as bring in examples of other successful Americans to connect with students.

Obama's back-to-school speech will be beamed across the Internet into classrooms nationally, and some Republicans and conservative critics have blasted the president for playing politics with America's schoolchildren, even though previous presidents have addressed students.

It will be up to the parents and schools to determine how many students will hear it.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said today its "sad" that "the political back and forth has intruded on anyone speaking to schoolchildren and teachers and parents about the responsibilities that they have as we enter a new school year.

"That many in this country politically would rather start an animal house food fight rather than inspire kids to stay in school, to work hard, to engage parents to stay involved and to ensure that the millions of teachers that are making great sacrifices continue to be the best in the world, it's a sad state of affairs," Gibbs said in a news briefing.

When President George H.W. Bush announced he would address the nation's students in 1991, the only reaction from parents and students was excitement.

"They were thrilled at the prospect of seeing him, hearing him and meeting him," said Cynthia Mostoller, whose eighth-grade classroom at Alice Deal Middle School in Washington, D.C., hosted the president that day 18 years ago.

Mostoller told ABC News she didn't vote for Bush, but she said politics has no role in a presidential address.

"There's nothing to be afraid of in listening to the president speak," she said. "I hope that we listen a lot to what any president has to say."

Obama's Back-to-School Speech Controversy

But not all educators agree. Some school districts are refusing to broadcast the president's live remarks after parents complained that Obama is using the address to indoctrinate their children. Some parents threatened to pull their kids out of school if the address was shown, citing fears that the president was going to use the opportunity to promote some kind of political agenda.

Some callers to the Joyce Kaufman radio show on WFTL in Florida Friday also took issue with having their children listen to the president speak.

One parent promised his child would not be in class, saying, "He does not have to sit in on this, he does not have to go to school and he sure as hell does not have to listen to what he has to say."

The firestorm surrounding the planned speech erupted when the Department of Education put out lesson plans suggesting that students, after watching the president's speech, write a letter about how they could "help the president."

The Department of Education has since removed the wording on the lesson plan after many argued it was a way of indoctrinating students.

Oddly enough, the original wording of the Obama lesson plan is remarkably similar to the request made by President Bush in 1991, when he asked an eighth-grade classroom, "Write me a letter about ways you can help us achieve our goals."

But the White House is still on the defensive.

Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation" that the president's message is not political.

"The whole message is about personal responsibility and challenging students to take their education very, very seriously," he said.

Lamar Alexander, who was Bush's education secretary in 1991 and is currently a senator from Tennessee, is one Republican who defended Obama's plan. He said today on "Fox News Sunday" that schools should use the president's speech as an opportunity.

"If I were a teacher, I'd take advantage of it, and I'd put up Lincoln and Eisenhower and Reagan and teach about the presidency," Alexander said.

That's exactly what Mostoller said she plans to do Tuesday when her students listen to the president's speech.

"Whether they agree with his message or not, they still need to be informed citizens and learn to make their own decisions," Mostoller said. "And that is what education is about."

ABC News' Rachel Martin, Kathleen Hendry and Matt Hosford contributed to this report.

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