About 50 million students around the country returned to school this morning. President Barack Obama addressed a few hundred of them, from kindergarten through 12th grade, at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. The address, paired with a roundtable with students and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, was designed to kick off the school year with a call to responsibility.
A wave of conservative backlash had greeted the announcement. Florida GOP chairman Bob Greer pounced on the idea of a presidential address: “As the father of four children, I am absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology,” he said. And several schools went out of their way to avoid broadcasting the Obama event. One school in New Jersey sent letters to parents saying: “North Hunterdon-Voorhees Regional High School District will not mandate that the speech be shown to our students during school…If you do not want your child to watch the speech, please have your child inform the teacher. The student will be given a pass to be excused from class."
What are these parents afraid of? As Josh Marshall (via Ta-Nehisi Coates) pointed out: “Barack Obama [is] definitely the first black man to get attacked by the right for telling kids to study hard and stay in school.” Even George W. Bush’s wife, Laura, who taught school for decades, told reporters “There's a place for the president of the United States to talk to schoolchildren and encourage schoolchildren” to stay in school and that it’s “really important for everyone to respect the president of the United States."
Seems um, elementary. But signs outside the Virginia school read “Children serve God, not Obama” (an interesting choice of slogan, given the separation of church and state). Another sign: “Obamaducation dumbing down students” (and demonstrating the pitfalls of coining new words).
Obama wisely went above the fray, and made the speech about not his critics but the students, deviating slightly from his prepared remarks to emphasize "you":
[W]e 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; YOU pay attention to those teachers; YOU listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and YOU put in the hard work it takes to succeed.
And 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.
… We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.
That's 20 "you's" in that section alone. The kids appeared to be listening intently, with barely a snicker when Obama scoffed at TV stars, rappers and athletes, saying “chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.”
UPDATE: Watch the whole speech.
And for what it’s worth, THE ROOT’s resident kid reporter Damon Weaver thinks the controversy is "silly":
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.