As Controversy Grows, Ex-First Lady Laura Bush Defends Presidential Address to Students
by Gayle Early
A special Board meeting convened on Labor Day to debate airing the President’s live broadcast. In a 3-2 vote, the majority voted to censor today's speech, citing concerns that it was “unconstitutional,” “indoctrination,” and “inappropriate.” The move sparked outrage and a call to oust school board members from some parents and students, who interrupted their holiday weekend to urge that the Board air the President's speech, which they they view as inspirational to students across America. WATCH LIVE HERE at 9 a.m. or READ THE FULL TEXT:
La Mesa (September 8, 2009)—President Obama, in a live broadcast, will address school children across America today at 9:00 a.m. about the importance of working hard, setting goals, and taking responsibility for their learning. In the words of Dr. Cyndi Sutton, Principal of Parkway Middle School in a letter sent to parents Friday, September 4th, “He will also call for a shared responsibility and commitment on the part of students, parents, and educators to ensure that every child in every school receives the best education possible, so they can compete in the global economy for good jobs and live rewarding and productive lives as American citizens.”
Obama’s “back-to-school” pep talk encourages kids to persist and succeed in school, but students at Parkway Middle and many other local schools will not get the message, at least today.
On the eve of the address, the La Mesa-Spring Valley Board of Education decided in a special meeting convened on Labor Day, that none of the children in its 21 elementary and middle schools will hear the live broadcast at school Tuesday with students in the rest of the country.
Board President Penny Halgren motioned, instead, that the District record the speech, and teachers, in consultation with their principals, may show the recording on September 9 or later, according to their discretion, in classrooms as appropriate. Parents who do not want their children to view the President’s address at any time may opt out. Members Rick Winet and Bob Duff voted for the Board President’s motion. Dr. Emma Turner and Bill Baber dissented, each having suggested in separate and highly contested motions to air the President’s speech live.
Approximately a dozen teachers and parents testified in favor of airing the speech. None testified against showing it, though Board members said they received numerous e-mails opposed to airing the video.
“It doesn’t need to be shown live on September 8,” Halgren said.
When, then? “What about the last day of school, is this what we’re going for?” Turner asked.
“We have families with strong opinions on both sides of the issue,” Marshall cautioned. “I think it’s difficult to leave it so loose that it can be shown any time in the next month, and leave families hanging in the balance.”
The Board left it that parents will be sending in opt-out notices on Tuesday, September 8, and will continue to have the opportunity to do so, admitting that logistics of showing the President’s address at school in the future are vague.
Several parents and one student had dropped their holiday celebrations to come speak before the Board. Bri Coston, a junior from Steele Canyon and graduate of La Mesa Dale Elementary and Spring Valley Middle, stated in her public comment that “some kids just need that inspirational boost to do well in school.”
The President’s speech shows, Coston said, just how much America has changed over 250 years, “when women and African Americans had no freedoms. They were not allowed to vote and they would not have been allowed to sit in a meeting such as this one.” Now, she said, we’ve had two women running for the highest offices and an African American President wanting to speak to schools on the importance of education. Bri said that a hundred years ago, only the wealthy could afford an education, and now there were opportunities for everyone to get a good education.
“Unfortunately,” the Steele Canyon student continued, “many of our students will not obtain this, because they do not have the access to someone in their lives telling them they are worth it and they can do something. And succeed. This speech emphasizes that in order to succeed in life, one must get a good education, and this is something that anyone can do if they push themselves to do well. There is no good reason not to show this speech in our schools and provide an opportunity for kids to get inspired.”
Halgren took issue with the age range of school children intended for Obama’s address (pre-Kindergarten through high school). She said the speech, “at 18 minutes long, in the life of a 7-year-old is an eternity.”
Halgren said some kids may or may not understand words or concepts in the President’s speech. Given the number of kids listening who may not understand the address, she said, “I am not sure the return that our children are going to be getting from having 100% of them listen to the speech live, at that moment in time, with whatever teacher happens to be there, with whatever social studies-type perspective that teacher may not have, is really a wise investment of our children’s time.”
“I’m thinking about my specific children listening to his speech,” Halgren shared, in a somewhat broken, emotional statement. “Children at seven or eight years old—they had no clue that was going on in the world. I consider myself very fortunate…to have an intact family, we had enough, we had parental support, we had everything we needed to raise our children, children from a very good family. But now you’re putting them in a room where there are words they don’t understand, stories they’re being told are about children that they don’t understand, that they can’t relate to.”
Turner countered, “I don’t think it would be detrimental to our children in this district to sit though a 15-18 minute speech by the President of the United States. A lot of times when they have a lesson in school they don’t always ‘get it.’ That’s why the President’s giving the speech! The fact that some of it might go over their heads is no reason not to show it in the classrooms.”
The U.S. Department of Education notified school districts by email on August 25 of the President’s speech and offered links to “a menu” of optional classroom activities, written by the Department’s teachers-in-residence, to stimulate class discussion “on the importance of education in their lives” (.http://www.ed.gov/admins/lead/academic/bts.html). It also posted on its website a “Letter from Secretary Arne Duncan to School Principals” with the recommended class activities.
Duncan’s notices were “an invitation” for schools to tune in to the speech, its chief purpose “to encourage educators to use this moment to help students get focused and inspired to begin the new academic year.” The choice to participate, his letter stated, was not mandatory, but “entirely up to schools and their communities.”
Superintendent Brian Marshall initially proposed that La Mesa-Spring Valley schools that have the technology could air the live broadcast, with parents not wanting their children to see the address having the ability to opt out. Middle schools would have shown the address in lieu of their usual morning televised school address, and teachers K-5 could have made the decision how and when and if to play the speech, said Marshall. Letters were sent home Friday, September 4, but after the school board’s September 7 game-time decision, Marshall left new phone messages with all district families that LMSV schools would not air the live address as previously scheduled. Parents could send opt-out letters to any future classroom viewing of the President’s address.
Superintendent Terry Grier, of the San Diego Unified School District, gave his schools and teachers the choice of including the address in their daily lesson plan, emphasizing it was not a requirement, with children having the opportunity to opt out. Superintendent Janice Cook, of the Cajon Valley School District, stated that the President’s address would be best viewed at home with family, but that some teachers may choose to air the speech, though “we will not be encouraging teachers to do so,” and that students not wishing to view it could opt out.
There was frequent confusion among the La Mesa-Spring Valley Board what it was debating in its Labor Day proceedings: Was it about airing the speech itself or allowing the suggested classroom activities that came with the speech? Dr. Emma Turner, Vice President of the Board, pointed out the only item stated on the Agenda was to discuss whether to air the broadcast. Other members stated that their discussion should include the Department’s corresponding suggested activities, but since none of the Board had the list of activities with them at the meeting and no one could delineate what exactly those activities entailed, Turner stated there could be no meaningful discussion of classroom activities and requested their decisions be solely about airing the speech, as stated in the agenda she was given.
Board Clerk Rick Winet was the most outspoken board member against airing Obama’s speech, being first to motion that the speech not be aired, with Bob Duff seconding. After hearing an impassioned round of public testimony in favor of airing the broadcast live, Winet said, “Let me answer a few of the folks here that have come up with their shocking belief that we would actually not show this particular address. Apparently, a few of you are not very familiar with the constitution of the United States. Would you like me to read some of it to you?”
After people in the audience indicated curiosity about Winet’s constitutional challenge, Winet cited a passage, not from the Constitution, but from the Department of Education (Code 3403, Education Chapter 28, he said), which discusses the rights of local governments in education institutions concerning its own educational programs and policies.
“This is from the Constitution of the United States,” Winet insisted, although he read from an educational code, which apparently codified his chief criticism of the President’s speech: “The establishment of the Department of Education shall not increase the authority of the federal government.”
Providing a speech and offering a curriculum, Winet said, “is not in [Obama’s] jurisdiction. This is in our jurisdiction, the School Board Members. This is not something he is to overtake [sic]. We are the ones to decide on curriculum. It is constitutionally incorrect for him to overstep these bounds.”
Winet cited one of the Department of Education’s suggested activities: ‘Write a letter to yourself. And ask what can you do to help the president.’
“How far have we fallen?” Winet asked the Board. “What we have come to is this, a scenario where we would like to have the President of the United States, and all his beliefs, and all of his ideas, come to us and tell us what he believes what should happen in regards to our school curriculum. We should go ahead and take 20 to 30 minutes of planned curriculum, unconstitutionally, and allow him to do whatever he’d like to do.”
Winet opined that the initial email sent by the Department of Education “was full of political rhetoric and lesson plans,” although Winet did not specify particular points of political rhetoric. (Upon request, Board President Penny Halgren forwarded East County Magazine the Department’s email; click here for the full text.)
Regarding the President’s speech itself, Winet said, “there are a number of antidotes [sic], personal things—and I’m sorry about your shock, but it’s obvious you don’t understand how this country does operate under this [sic] constitutional… boundaries.”
At this point, a member of the audience spoke out, against protocol, and the hearing descended into momentary chaos:
This is getting personal and he has more than three minutes,” said Leah Piffard. “That’s not right.”
Winet responded to Piffard, “I’m an elected representative, you’re a public member. You had your three minutes.”
Winet had rebuffed Piffard after her public comment about Piffard’s admittedly contentious email correspondence with the board member. Forced to winnow a lengthy email correspondence to a three-minute comment, Piffard excerpted Winet’s condescending responses to her concerns to a few pithy extracts, such as his reference to her “empty email;” his comment, “I am certain that your opinion holds more weight and significance than numerous Governors, The San Diego Union-Tribune, and millions of your fellow Americans;” and “In our Representative Republic, the President of the United States, and the Secretary of Education are public servants, not kings of every and any domain in which they decide to dabble.”
Piffard said she didn’t know the Secretary of Education and the President were ‘dabbling’ in education.
Winet dismissed Piffard’s comments directly: “When you make accusations in public comment like that, you’re making a very hollow type of presentation,” he said.
“I’m an elected representative of the people, and you’re welcome to run against me.”
“Don’t worry, we will, you’ll be out,” one man said. Board members called for order in the growing chaos; Halgren asked for control in the room or members of the public would have to leave. She requested that Winet address the Board members with his comments, rather than confront the public directly.
Vice President Turner said to her fellow Board members, “I understand your concern about indoctrination. I don’t agree with it, but I understand. President Obama wanted to speak to our kids. Presenting the text of the speech, she said, “There’s no curriculum in here. I’d appreciate it if you or any of the other board members can show me anywhere in this speech President Obama is trying to indoctrinate our kids. President Obama talks about things that happened in his life, things that happened in other people’s life, trying to give kids inspiration and motivation so that they can do a good job despite their odds.
“Who would not want kids be motivated to be good, productive citizens, instead of filling up these incarceration facilities?” Turner asked. “I don’t know why you ran for school board, but I ran because I’m here to help the kids. “When I read this speech I was so inspired—I can use this, being on the California School Board Association.”
Turner said teachers often ask her ‘how can I help people in my classroom or my district who aren’t motivated? How can I inspire them? How can I get them going?’ “President Obama gave concrete examples of the language in here teachers can use to help their kids. I find it a very helpful speech, I don’t see anything wrong with it,” she said.
Winet wondered if, at the end of the President’s televised comments, he might say something like, “’You should watch me tomorrow night, in the full session of Congress’?
“I don’t trust the man,” Winet said. “What we were provided with, how this was to transpire, has changed numerous times.” Winet reiterated his concern about curriculum. Turner reminded him the Board was charged with discussing the speech, not the “curriculum.”
Member Bill Baber said he received more emails opposing the speech than supporting it. In an email he wrote to his constituent, Leah Piffard, and which he read at Monday’s hearing, “I asked for this special meeting because I felt this was not the type of issue that should be made unilaterally by our Superintendent and because a special meeting gives the public an opportunity to participate in the decision.”
There was no opposing commentary in the public portion of the hearing, but one of the oppositional emails, from emigrants from the former “communist” Yugoslavia, was read into the record. The email likened Obama’s speech to the indoctrination of communist dictator Marshall Tito, where “school children were mandated to wear red scarves and sing in praise, ‘Comrade Tito, we pledge to you, that we will not stray from the road you lead us to.’….”
Jay Steiger, a father of students at Murdock Elementary, spoke about his school’s back-to-school night the previous Thursday. He found an anonymous leaflet on his windshield “calling on parents to keep their children home from school next Tuesday,” referring to Obama’s upcoming address. The letter, he testified to the Board, said ‘we must all send a message to educate, not indoctrinate.’ Steiger said that the Department of Education and President’s message challenging students to work hard, set educational goals, and take responsibility for their learning “sounds like useful advice to me….What sort of message does it send to the children for parents, or Boards, who literally refuse to listen to an address from the President?” he asked the Board.
Said Baber, “The people elected Mr. Obama to be the President with their votes. That means his Office deserves my respect, and the respect of our school children. If the President inspires one student to greatness, it will be worth all this angst.” Baber said he’d hoped to watch the address with his eighth-grade student in her class Tuesday.
Baber acknowledged the role of federal government in education. “We take Title I money. We follow ‘No Child Left Behind.’ In general, we don’t want federal government running education because we believe education at the local level is better, but we are taking federal money and I think we have to factor that it.”
Baber said he thought teachers should decide which class would show the address, such as in social studies, rather than in band. “Let them work it out, I don’t think every teacher has to do it,” he said. “I’d like to see it at some point in the day when it’s appropriate. I want to give the teachers the discretion, with their principal, to make that choice.”
Turner said, “The subject, the course, the class is not the point. The kids—in that class—that [Obama’s] trying to reach, that one child you spoke of that would make all the difference for you, could be in that band class where it wasn’t shown.”
Member Bob Duff noted that if the district were to air the live speech on Tuesday, some families would keep their children home and the schools would lose funding for the loss in attendance. “It bothers me that any number of kids whose parents take them out of school because the school is going to show the program…because it’s an idea that a parent thinks something bad is happening there that this ugly person up there in the office that they didn’t vote for is going to be putting something on their child that they didn’t want,” he said.
Turner pressed members of the Board to express whether they thought they were afraid kids would stay home from school during Obama’s speech “because of something covert or underhanded.” She asked the Board if they thought the President of the United States even had a right to talk to all the kids in the Nation.
Winet said, “It depends on what he’s talking about.”
Turner waved the speech. “OK, this is what he’s talking about.”
“I haven’t heard anybody tell me why they don’t want the President’s speech to be heard at the same,” she said. “All I get is answers about the curriculum, which is not on the table.”
Halgren responded, “I think you’re talking about wasting a lot time for young students.”
“Eighteen minutes is not a lot of time,” Turner said. “Kids may not understand every single word that’s said. But kids understand ‘you can do it.’ ‘I did it, I know it’s hard.’ Kids understand those words.”
The Board also debated whether to post a link to the President’s address on its district web page, Baber weighing in, “The White House has its own website. We don’t need to be doing their work for them….There’s this theory that once you put something on the website, then that’s ‘yours’—when you put that speech in there, many people with consider that to be endorsing the speech.”
Halgren said that a link to the President’s speech was reasonable, that “not everybody in the world knows how to get to the White House.”
After the meeting, Dr. Turner spoke with ECM. “I’m disappointed in my fellow Board members that they would vote not to show the presidential speech, and I think it’s a cop out, the way they did it.”
Penny Halgren also said, in a discussion afterwards, “I just think there’s so much controversy, I think [our decision] gives an opportunity [for parents and teachers to review the address]. It’s such a wide range of students that he’s going to be talking to, there’s going to be a lot of children who don’t get it at all. So I think it’s more appropriate for teachers to choose what’s appropriate for their students. Potentially it’s a great message to children, but I think it needs to be handled on an individual-class basis.”
Halgren asked those around her about their desire to have the President’s speech aired live.
Sophie Coston, a student teacher in third-grade, at Chula Vista Elementary, said not doing so “will really lose the impact. It will have a very good effect and impact.”
“Everybody’s going to be going home tomorrow, if they were able to watch it, and it’s going to be talked about. To take the energy—a lot of kids are starting school tomorrow and that’s the intent [of the speech]—to have it shown tomorrow, you get some momentum and can move with that,” said Kent Coston, who also spoke at the hearing.
“You do have a large percentage of children who will go home tomorrow, and they won’t get that at home,” Sophie Coston added. “They don’t have parents who are going to be interested in showing them the President’s speech. They will have nobody to watch it with. If they watch it at school, with their teacher, they have someone that will instill a discussion with them.
“Our kids are going to go home and say ‘our school district, our teachers, our principals, didn’t see that it was important enough for us to watch this. On the day that we were supposed to watch it,’ she said. Our kids are smart. Things will not go over their heads as much as you say they will.”
“Maybe the intent of the President’s speech is to have a great impact. In my opinion, it won’t have that impact,” Halgren answered her, “if you round everybody up and say, OK, you’re going to sit through this.”
Sophie Coston spoke of the social studies curriculum for her third graders, implying that some of the Board members are out of touch with what students are learning: “They students are getting stories about kids from other countries, they’re not rich, they have different, diverse backgrounds, they do have to work.”
Kent Coston added, “Some [of the Board] are very out of touch with the constituency—the kids that they serve. To serve the constitution and not the kids is a pretty big problem. And to not understand the capacity of the kids—to think, ‘these kids aren’t so bright, so maybe we shouldn’t show this. That’s actually very disturbing for the President of the Board to carry that opinion.”
Halgren said, to this point, earlier, that she “wasn’t suggesting that the students are not smart enough. I’m suggesting they’re not mature enough, they don’t have experience, it’s a matter of life experiences. What your circumstances are, who your friends are, and who you’re surrounded by. Either you have that experience or you don’t.”
Regarding the lack of evidence for “controversial elements” in the President’s text, Halgren said to ECM, “I think a lot of the controversy began before the contents of the speech came out. There was an email from the Secretary of Education saying President Obama wants to speak to all the children in the country. But he didn’t really say exactly what he was going to say.”
ECM asked Dr. Turner about the constitutionality of the President’s speech. “No one debated that because it’s ludicrous. He [Winet] picked something out that didn’t have any bearing on what we were talking about. He’s saying the federal government should not control the decision of the locals about the education of our kids. Duh! We know that. But we get strings tied on us by the State, as well as the Federal level, as Baber mentioned. What about ‘No Child Left Behind’? That’s a mandate, we have to make sure we reach almost an impossible standard. So, for him to say that about the President’s speech, moves the whole debate to the area of ‘OK, this is influenced by the federal government, and we need it out, of our control, is ridiculous. He should be talking about ‘No Child Left Behind’: why don’t he get on that bandwagon if he wants to get on: ‘oh, you’re controlling us, you can’t control us.’ The President’s speech does not rise to the level of controlling us, from the federal level. That’s ridiculous. That’s not why we came tonight. That’s not why I came tonight. He didn’t make any sense.”
How does a parent explain why the President’s speech will not air tomorrow in local school districts? Turner said, “I kept asking for an explanation of what they found objectionable with the speech. Did you hear me get an answer?
“The fall back to anything you don’t have an answer to,” she said, “is usually you change the subject. You bring up something that has nothing to do with it, like the curriculum ideas, which wasn’t in the agenda. You can’t have a substantial debate with someone who won’t give you anything to debate. Who keeps changing the subject. It’s hard for me to answer that question for any parent who would call me. Why do they object to it, and why are they airing it the next day? They’re going to see it anyway, what’s the big deal? I refer you to the minutes of the public meeting. Talk to the three Board members who voted for this. I asked them several during the meeting, and they didn’t give me a response. See if you can get one out of them.”
ECM invited Member Winet to comment about the Board’s decision to kill the live feed. “Ask the President,” he said. “That’s what I understood her motion to be.” Bottom line, why the Board made this decision? “Well I voted ‘no’ so you probably don’t want my opinion. You should probably ask Penny.”
Superintendent Brian Marshall made it clear that no LMSV school may air the speech tomorrow. He reiterated, in a phone message to all families in the district, Monday evening, that any student may opt out of viewing the video in their individual classrooms, should the teacher show it. He appeared, to ECM, to be disappointed by the Board’s decision. “Why not air it tomorrow? I’m not sure. I think it has something to do with logistics. But I am an employee of the Board. I will carry out the Board’s decision.”
Ironically, CNN reported Monday that former first lady Laura Bush defended Obama’s address. CNN quoted Mrs. Bush as saying, “I think that there is a place for the President of the United States to talk to school children and encourage school children, and I think there are a lot of people that should do the same. And that is to encourage their own children to stay in school and to study hard and to try to achieve the dream that they have.”