clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Opinion: Don't opt out of Obama school talk

Julie Poppen is editor of EdNews Parent, our sister website. This article is cross-posted from her editor’s blog.

If you’re a parent of a child in public school, chances are you recently got a notice like this from your teacher, school or district:

Dear Parents,

We’ll be listening to and watching President Obama’s Back-to-School Speech on Wednesday. If you want to opt out and not have your child watch this, you must fill out the attachment and return it to school on Monday.

As much as I like to be in the loop as far as school events are concerned, this really ticked me off. This is not a choice I want. I don’t believe it’s a choice I should have. I don’t care if our president is a Republican, a Democrat, an independent, black, brown, white, young, old, middle-aged, Jew, Mormon, Christian, man or woman.

Our children should all have the privilege of listening to the president of the United States speak about the importance of education.

Now, would it make me feel better to know the president who happens to be making the address is someone I support? Of course. But I fail to see how a generic talk about the importance of education could be seen as proselytizing or controversial in any way. (If you are a parent who is not allowing your child to watch the speech live, I want to hear from you to understand your position).

In the event of partisan rhetoric…

Even if a president did veer into potentially divisive policy talk (highly unlikely for any president facing re-election), wouldn’t that be a great starting point for a classroom discussion? Shouldn’t our children be taught to listen to all sides, research the validity of statements made and come to their own conclusions? (To get a sense of the tone, read the text of last year’s speech to school children by President Obama, or watch the video at the end of this post).

How can depriving a child of information – especially stay-in-school messaging with the president’s own personal, and in President Obama’s case, compelling narrative – help, in any way, develop the critical thinking skills our children will so desperately need to succeed in the future? If nothing else, maybe it just will motivate a few kids to stay in school.

Nobody asked me if I was OK with my daughter watching Looney Tunes cartoons in class when the teacher was absent. Nobody asked if I was OK with giving my daughter candy for doing good work. Nobody asked if it was OK that my daughter watched a video about colonial America that included imagery of a man’s skeleton with a bullet embedded in his bone. (Yep, my fourth-grader is still talking about that, and yep, it killed him).

And you know what? I don’t care. I don’t want to be asked about every little thing that happens each school day. I trust the teachers and administrators to do a good job educating my daughter. Most days I feel good about how things are going at school; some days I don’t.

Parents have a job to do, too

But that’s where my job as a parent comes in. I can talk to my daughter about things that happen at school and I can help her learn to evaluate – and form her own opinion – of what she’s learning and how she’s learning it, and how to make things better for herself. If I do have concerns about anything happening in the classroom or at school, I can talk to the teacher.

If she comes home this week with questions about President Obama’s stance on education, we’ll research it together.

I give schools in the Boulder Valley School District credit for showing the live webcast to all students (at least those old enough to get something out of it). In 2009, some Boulder Valley schools chose not to show it at all. All students in Jeffco Public Schools will have the opportunity to see it this year – if their parents agree to it. If parents opt their child out, “alternative activities” will be planned. (I am curious about what those activities might be…) In Aurora, it’s a school-based or classroom-based decision, meaning your child could be deprived of viewing the live stream if the teacher chooses not to participate.

Not just another Boulder liberal

Now, I realize that some people may lump me with all the other crazy “Boulder liberals.” And I will admit it can be tough to get a balanced presentation of ideas around here. But I do have a fundamental respect for the office of the president – something instilled in me by my parents, who represented both parties – and that’s where former first lady Laura Bush and I agree: In 2009, when the outcry first erupted about President Obama’s back-to-school speech, she encouraged parents to talk to their children about the importance of education. She also said it is “really important for everyone to respect the president of the United States.” (We disagree on the part about allowing kids to “opt out” of a president’s back-to-school remarks… If you respect the office, how can you not allow your child to watch a presidential speech?)

In fact, it’s important to respect people with political affiliations and viewpoints different than your own. I am registered as “independent,” and I will not tolerate kids calling people from either party “stupid.” It’s like calling all boys “dumb,” or ridiculing anyone who wears braces. It’s bullying and it’s intellectually lazy.

The playground is where ugly partisan politics begin – even in Boulder. I believe a unifying speech on the importance of learning by any sitting United States president is a place to stop the hateful rhetoric.

With Wednesday’s speech, we can unite around a common goal of giving our children the education they deserve. There are many paths toward a quality education. And we will fight plenty about how to define educational success. But I think we can all agree on these words, taken from the president’s back-to-school script one year ago, because they are the words we share with our own children:

Your future is in your hands. Your life is what you make of it. And nothing – absolutely nothing – is beyond your reach. So long as you’re willing to dream big. So long as you’re willing to work hard. So long as you’re willing to stay focused on your education.

I see nothing partisan or controversial about that.

President Obama’s 2010 back-to-school speech

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing the information families and educators need, but this kind of work isn't possible without your help.

Sign up for the newsletter Chalkbeat Colorado

Sign up for our newsletter.