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Obama speech concerns midstate parents

President Obama’s back-to-school address next week was supposed to be a feel-good story for an administration battered over its health-care agenda. Now Republican critics are calling it an effort to foist a political agenda on children, creating yet another confrontation with the White House.

Obama plans to speak directly to students Tuesday about the need to work hard and stay in school. His address will be shown live on the White House Web site and on C-SPAN at noon, a time when classrooms across the country will be able to tune in.

Schools don’t have to show it. But districts across the country have been inundated with phone calls from parents and are struggling to address the controversy that broke out after Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent a letter to principals urging schools to watch.

A statement on the Georgia Department of Education Web site said the department was not involved in planning the event and that the decision to participate “lies completely with local school officials.” It also noted that students “who do not want to watch the video have that option.”

Bibb schools Superintendent Sharon Patterson said teachers and students are encouraged to listen to the president’s speech and that principals have been sent information about lesson plans. Her understanding, she said, is that the speech will focus on goal setting, responsibility and the importance of an education, which are compatible with community goals.

Asked if any parents had complained, Patterson said “we have had a few.” Students will be provided an alternative activity if their parents don’t want them to participate, she added.

In Houston County, at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday — a half hour before Obama’s speech about education is scheduled to air — Kimber Bell will check her two sons out of Houston County High School.

Although the school does not plan to show the speech to students until 2:15 p.m., Bell does not want to take any chances that her sons will see what she calls “political propaganda and indoctrination.”

Bell is upset the school did not ask her permission for her sons to watch the speech. She’s also mad they won’t be given the option, other than checking out early, not to watch the speech. And when they check early, it will be unexcused.

“It’s not about my political views. It’s about me as a parent,” Bell said. “What if this speech the president gives has some sort of adverse effect on my child? … I feel like my parental rights have been stripped by the school system who believe in this message.”

The school system does support the message, said Robin Hines, assistant superintendent for school operations in Houston.

“Our position on it is it’s the president of the United States who is giving a message on the importance of education, and that’s what we support,” Hines said. “We’re in the education business, not the political business.”

According to Beth McLaughlin, Houston’s director of community and school affairs, students in grades 4-12 in all schools will view the speech in the final half-hour of the school day. Principals will view the speech at noon and decide if the content of the speech is appropriate for grades pre-K through third grade.

A few parents have called the system office to express their opinions on both sides of the matter, Hines said.

“Some have expressed positive thoughts, and we’ve had others who have expressed concerns,” he said.

Staff writer Jennifer Burk contributed to this Associated Press report.

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