Obama's School Speech, Parental Rights, and American Democracy

Tuesday, 8 September 2009 00:19 by Eli Savit

The President of the United States will be giving a back-to-school speech to K-12 students across the nation today.  Per the White House's advance text, the speech is primarily motivational in nature and encourages kids to work hard during the coming school year.  Obama's speech revisits his oft-tread personal narrative, includes a story about Michael Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team, and is decorated with pedestrian statements like "pay attention to your teachers," and "there's no excuse for dropping out."  The speech will apparently not, as one GOP official put it, use "taxpayer dollars" to "spread President Obama's socialist ideology"--unless those sneaky socialists have changed their slogan from "free the tools of production!" to "become good at things through hard work!"

The actual content of his remarks notwithstanding, a number of schools will not show President Obama's speech--while other schools will let parents "excuse" their children from Obama's address--because of a strong parental backlash last week.  Parents across the nation voiced concern about the speech "serving as a direct channel from the President of the United States to [their] child[ren]," derided the address as "Marxist propaganda," and complained that they had not consented to exposing their children to the President's message.  Such parental complaints are the height of silliness.  The notion that Obama had some secret political message hidden in his back-to-school speech is laughable, as is the notion that schools should seek parents' permission before exposing children to such controversial figures as...um, the President of the United States.  (In fairness,  Congressional Democrats were just as silly in 1991 when they objected to the use of taxpayer money to fund a similar speech by the first President Bush).  But the hysteria brought about by Obama's speech has already been covered ad nauseum across the blogosphere, and I won't revisit that well-tread ground any further here.  

The firestorm Obama's speech touched off goes to a much bigger--and far more interesting--issue than whether the President is a closet Marxist.  Many parents who choose to send their kids to public school believe that they retain some semblance of control over their children's education.  Parents expect to be consulted when schools touch upon controversial subjects like sex, drugs, or even evolution.  But there's a tension here: public schools have a right--and a responsibility--to mold children into individuals that can function as intelligent, well-adjusted, and well-informed participants in American society and American democracy.  The question is: when does the state's interest in molding good citizens trump parental rights in their children's upbringing?

When both schools and parents insist upon their respective rights, parents sometimes sue, and these questions are kicked to the judiciary.  Sometimes courts side with parents: a 1972 Supreme Court decision, for example, held the state could not require that Amish students attend secondary school against their parents' wishes. Other decisions hold that the state's interest in societal engineering trumps parental rights.  In 1987, for example, a group of Christian parents in Tennessee brought suit against their local school district, demanding that their children be excused from parts of the school curriculum that they deemed offensive.  Among other things, the parents objected to their children using a standard Holt reader that featured passages about a space mission to Mars ("futuristic supernaturalism," the plaitiffs claimed) and a story that allegedly encouraged children to use the "occult practice" of imagining things that were "beyond scriptural authority."  Citing the school district's right to teach "fundamental values essential to a democratic society," the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that, in the name of pluralism, public schools could insist that children be exposed to practices and beliefs their parents found abhorrant.  

But most conflicts between parents and schools never make it into the courts.  It's far easier for schools to let parents "excuse" their children from any activities they find offensive--whether it's sex education or listening to a Presidential address.  To some degree, this makes sense: after all, schools are ultimately controlled by local government and parents are ultimately voters, so why should schools start an unnecessary or politically divisive fight?  

To my mind, though, there are some battles that school districts should fight with parents.  And while Obama's speech is probably not going to be a life-changing experience for many children, it offers lessons that are far too important to be trumped by parental control.  First, it is critical that Americans grow up with a set of shared facts and understandings about our politics, our history, and our government.  Americans are already too politically divided, and the factionalization of the news media (with conservatives tuning into FOX and liberals frequenting the Huffington Post) only exacerbates our divisions.  Public schools are one of the last places where Americans from different backgrounds and viewpoints come together and are exposed to similar content and experiences; they are one of the last institutions that ensure Americans share a "foundation of good citizenship."  Thus, schools should strive to provide their students with clean and unadulterated access to news and to the inner workings of government.  For that reason, a school's choice to expose kids to any speech by a prominent national, state, or local politician should usually fall beyond the boundaries of parental rights of objection.  

Furthermore, it's important that students learn how to actively engage in political discourse and to respect their opponents.  If a child's parent wants to hyperbolically call a politician a "Marxist dictator," or a "fascist" or whatever, fine--but public schools should also have the right to teach a child how to respectfully listen to that politician's platform and offer respectful counterpoints.  Our democracy could be seriously harmed if parents can prohibit schools from exposing students to viewpoints that differ from those they hear at home.  

It is not always easy to define the precise contours of parental rights, particularly when they clash with public schools' responsibility to help mold future citizens.  But exposing students to a speech by a sitting President seems to fall well within the purview of schools' charge of ensuring that students can fully and effectively contribute to American democracy.  

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Weekly News Update: September 4

Friday, 4 September 2009 21:31 by Brendan Campbell

Editor's Note: This is our weekly news roundup of education-related events nationwide and in our launch regions, compiled by one of our amazing interns. 

+ Multi-taskers not as effective as they think (New York Times via This Week in Education)
+ Obama speech draws conservative ire (
Boston.comNew York TimesNPRUSA Today)
+ Nearly 10% of the class of 2009 did not pass the HS exit exam (
LA Times)
+ Learning isn't for 9 months, it's forever (
Washington Post)

+ Does paying for grades cheapen education? (NPR)
+ Reading Rainbow ends (US News and World Reports)
+ LA charter schools given chance to grow (LA Times)
+ Moms scramble to find after school care (NPR)
+ Schools force teacher furloughs to trim budgets (MSNBC)
+ The university's crisis of purpose (New York Times)
+ Some English teachers are letting students pick the books they want to read (New York Times)
+ Colleges ramp up efforts to hold onto students (NPR)

D.C. Metro:
+ Cheating probe results are "inconclusive" (Washington Post)
+ No rules broken in Fenty sons' enrollment (
Washington Post)
+ Problems plague software system (Washington Post)

+ Oakland University profs. go on strike (New York Times)
+ Bill Cosby backs Detroit school effort (
New York Times) 

New York:
+ City plans to raise standards as so many schools receive high marks (New York Times)
+ City says it's ready for H1N1 (New York Times)
+ Mayor Bloomberg unveils new schools (NY1), and a closer look at his new school construction math (NY Daily News)
+ Extra day of summer gets mixed review from parents (NY Daily News)

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