MANATEE — Manatee public school students will be able skip President Barack Obama’s back-to-school address next week if they bring a note from their parents, district officials said this afternoon.
“As with any other piece of the curriculum, there is an opt-out,” said Manatee schools Superintendent Tim McGonegal.
The president is scheduled to speak at noon Tuesday, “about persisting and succeeding in school,” the U.S. Department of Education’s Web site states.“The president will challenge students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning.”
The speech will be available live on C-SPAN and on the White House Web site. Exactly when and how students watch the speech will be up to teachers and administrators at each campus, depending on their schedules, Manatee officials said. The speech is scheduled at a time many students are at lunch.
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School district spokeswoman Margi Nanney said the district had received “several dozen” telephone calls from parents concerned about Obama’s speech and whether it would be political in nature.
Nationwide, there have been complaints on several conservative blogs and Web sites that Obama and his administration are using the speech to “indoctrinate” students about health care reform and other parts of the president’s agenda. Some have even encouraged parents to keep their children home from school Tuesday.
Manatee officials said they don’t think there is a risk of the president improperly mixing education with politics, and that the stated intent of the speech is consistent with the district’s strategic objectives.
But, “We’re not making it mandatory,” Nanney said. “We’ve had a lot of parents who don’t want their children to watch this.”
Lawrence A. Miller, chairman of the Manatee Democratic Party, said he did not have a problem with the district giving parents a choice of whether their children view Obama’s speech, but he said he did not recall such a choice when Republican presidents spoke to students.
Miller was riled that some would suggest the president was trying to indoctrinate students with a socialist agenda.
“Did they do this when Ronald Reagan spoke to schoolchildren or George Bush spoke to children or any other president? I don’t think so. ... This is unprecedented in American history, where presidents are seen as indoctrinating students,” Miller said.
“Staying in school? This is somehow a socialist agenda? Come on,” he said.
Miller said the speech controversy is another “desperate attempt” by the president’s Republican and conservative opponents to discredit Obama.
“This is all made up in the minds of those who want to tear this man down,” Miller said.
Officials with the Manatee Republican Party could not be reached for comment Thursday.
Nanney said that students who opt-out of watching Obama’s speech would be able to participate in an alternate activity. McGonegal said the district has traditionally made such arrangements when parents, for example, object to a book their child’s class is reading.
Thursday afternoon, officials explained their thinking in a message placed on the district’s Web site:
“President Obama´s message is expected to reinforce the Manatee County School District´s strategic objectives regarding goal setting and the importance of education. Parents or guardians who do not want their children to view the President´s address may send a note to the teacher or school no later than Tuesday morning, September 8, 2009.”
The site also includes a link to the U.S. Department of Education’s Web page on Obama’s speech, which includes possible study guides for teachers to use with their students.
Students are also encouraged to create videos in which they can respond to the president’s message.