September 8, 2009

September 8, 2009 | Commentary on Education, Political Thought

Presidents Walk Fine Line When Talking to Schools

The White House plan for President Barack Obama to deliver a national back-to-school address next week to elementary and secondary school students is unusual, but not objectionable on first glance.

Would most Americans raise concerns after learning President Ronald Reagan planned to speak to the nation's children? Or that, fancifully, President John F. Kennedy had wished to follow on his famous inaugural address by exhorting the nation's youth to ask not what their country could do for them, but what they could do for their country?

What's troubling here is that a government-prepared lesson plan seemed to ask students what they could do for President Obama.

Isn't the response to the news of the Obama address next Tuesday -- White House aides rushed to revise prepared "study guides" on how schoolchildren could "help" the president after conservatives questioned the motives -- merely a function of our politics? Not exactly.

No firewalls exist between what defines an appropriate forum for a presidential speech to young people and what crosses into the realm of the unseemly or offensive. Several elements of President Obama's decision to make a formal speech to America's schoolchildren do, however, raise disturbing questions. Such events are nearly unprecedented for good reason.

Just what is new on this occasion? Previous presidents addressed young students en masse, and with justification. Typically, however, such occasions involve addresses to the American people in which teachers, spontaneously or as a result of historical circumstances, already were attuned to a national event.

Take, for instance, President Reagan's address after the Challenger disaster. Across the country that clear January morning, millions of schoolchildren had been watching the space shuttle launch on television. They witnessed the heartbreaking spectacle of the explosion that killed New Hampshire teacher Christa McAuliffe and six other astronauts.

Schools everywhere carried Reagan's appropriate words of consolation and encouragement. It's certainly possible he would have addressed the nation after any daytime calamity on this scale, but the fact that boys and girls across the land already were watching made Reagan's speech, and the words he chose, perfectly fit.

In 1991, when President George H.W. Bush made a speech broadcast live from a D.C. junior high to urge young people nationwide to study hard and avoid drugs, Democrats criticized him for using the Department of Education to produce "paid political advertising."

American presidents, of course, speak regularly to individual school audiences. They drop in on classrooms, read to younger children and deliver speeches for graduations and campus-wide events.

Such a visit, though, even when quasi-political in timing and location, is well mediated. The purpose could be to advocate policy or undergird an administration theme, but the events tend to involve the larger community. The children present provide an audience. They generally are not the audience.

I know something about helping a president communicate with schoolchildren. In the 1980s, I was a writer for President Reagan. One of my duties was to supervise the White House Children's Unit. Its director, Connie Mackey, and I initiated an effort -- aggressive at the time -- to respond to the high volume of mail a president receives from children.

Besides responding to kids' letters, we crafted a newsletter covering about six issues at a time. Our undiluted intention was to inform young people about Reagan's views and policies. We sent these newsletters directly to schools, with a clear understanding: The students themselves had written to the president on the topics.

The very notion could be criticized as an inappropriate use of taxpayers' money. We thought it preferable either to not responding or devoting time and money to individualized answers. And we had no Internet to help.

More often than not, an inappropriate use of taxpayer funds spawned the need for the president to respond. It was amazing how many 9-year-olds "spontaneously" opposed welfare reform or the placement of intermediate-range nuclear weapons. Someone had suggested the kids write letters to the president. And it wasn't Mom and Dad.

On Nov. 14, 1988, in the final weeks of his two terms, President Reagan did in fact make remarks to Washington area junior high students and field questions in a program taped in the State Dining Room and aired by C-SPAN and PBS. Reagan, however, did not distribute assignments to his national classroom -- nor did Bush in 1991.

Something different appeared to be afoot with the Obama address. An American president, the subject of a highly unusual "study guide" crafted in advance by his political aides working with the Department of Education, seeks to take his message to the nation's schoolchildren after his roughest month in office.

No great historical occasion, unanticipated or emotionally gripping, is foreseen. The entire school community isn't involved; civic institutions don't frame the appearance. It's just teacher, President Obama and Jack and Jill.

The president's speech will be about "the value of education and the importance of staying in school," a White House spokesman said. "It's not a policy speech."

Still, one apparently unaltered question in the study guide asks children: "What new ideas and actions is the President challenging me to think about?"

A good answer would be the one my mother always advised me to give the salesman knocking at the front door: "You have to talk to my parents."

Chuck Donovan is senior research fellow in the DeVos Center on Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage Foundation (heritage.org). Previously executive vice president at the Family Research Council, he served as deputy director of presidential correspondence in the Reagan White House.

About the Author

Chuck Donovan Senior Research Fellow
DeVos Center for Religion and Civil Society

Related Issues: Education, Political Thought

First Appeared on RealClearPolitics.com