Barbara Hickman, assistant superintendent of the Flagstaff Unified School District, said the calls started not long after President Barack Obama announced a televised back-to-school address for Sept. 8.
She’d received between 10 and 20 calls from parents by the afternoon of Sept. 3, one day after the announcement. Some raised mild concerns and others were much more leery.
“They think he might be trying to indoctrinate the students with socialist views,” Hickman said.
It was much the same story at several other school districts contacted by Cronkite News Service, and officials at each said they were making participation optional when the president’s address airs on C-SPAN and on the White House Web site. The talk is intended for students from preschool through high school, and the U.S. Department of Education is providing materials to guide learning before, during and after the speech.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne raised concerns as well, saying materials accompanying the event smack of “hero worship” and don’t give students the opportunity to examine Obama’s message critically.
Horne singled out some of the questions used to guide class discussions after the talk, such as “What is President Obama inspiring you to do? What is he challenging you to do?”
“These aren’t critical thinking-type questions; these are hero-worship questions,” Horne said.
He noted that he doesn’t have the authority to tell schools whether or not to participate.
A person who answered the phone at the White House Office of Media Affairs asked a reporter to e-mail questions, but there was no response by the early evening of Sept. 3.
The Arizona School Boards Association issued a statement Sept. 3 “strongly encouraging” schools to participate, noting that materials provided by the U.S. Department of Education show the president will encourage students to work hard and take responsibility for their learning.
However, the group said parents should have a choice of whether their children will take part.
“We believe encouraging high student achievement and responsible and informed citizenship is a responsibility, and the president’s address is an opportunity to address those things,” spokeswoman Tracey Benson said in an interview.
At the Flagstaff Unified School District, Hickman said she found it interesting that some parents wouldn’t want their children to watch a speech by the president intended for them.
“I would always encourage parents to let their children hear different viewpoints and to discuss those viewpoints with them at home,” she said.
At schools in the Lake Havasu Unified School District, students who don’t participate will be given an alternative assignment, Superintendent Gail Malay said.
“We want the community to understand that we are being careful,” she said. “If the speech is just about encouraging students to stay in school, then we will show it.”