President Obama in the classroom

President Obama’s plan to address schoolchildren Tuesday morning is a reminder that this country’s political divide is growing wider by the week — and that his rock-star persona is wearing thin.

Conservatives pounced on the announcement, claiming the president was plotting to poison youngsters with big-government, social-activism platitudes. Some liberals have been apoplectic over the conservatives’ reaction, claiming the only conspiracy afoot involves Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. Meanwhile, the country’s schools — public and private — have been overwhelmed with questions from parents of all political persuasions and forced to make allowances on short notice for what amounts to a major classroom interruption at the tightly scheduled start of the school year.

Some parents are going so far as to consider keeping their kids home from school. Scores of school districts have said they won’t show the speech, which is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. in Las Vegas and be shown on C-SPAN and the White House Web site.

No such screeching resulted when President George W. Bush asked a group of schoolchildren to donate toward assistance efforts in Afghanistan. When his father, President George H.W. Bush, made a short nationally televised speech from a high school in 1991, Democrats accused him of “paid political advertising,” but not much else came from it.

The reactions to President Obama’s talk have been a bit over the top, but they’re understandable considering the Obama administration has mishandled the speech the same way it has botched health care reform and energy and economic policy — by overreaching.

For starters, President Obama is planning to talk for between 15 and 20 minutes. The man has two children of his own. Unless he intends on enlisting the assistance of Hannah Montana and SpongeBob, he should know that he’s going to lose his audience after four minutes, if not sooner.

Second, the Department of Education has devised a set of “classroom activities” for teachers to use after the speech. Children in kindergarten through the sixth grade should be asked, “What is the president asking me to do? What new ideas and actions is the president challenging me to think about?” The original version of the program had students “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president,” but was changed following public outcry to have them write letters “about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term education goals.”

Especially in early grades, these suggestions are beyond far-out — they’re a waste of time. And with so many school districts beginning their school year Tuesday, it’s ridiculous for the president and the Department of Education to think teachers can spend 45 minutes to an hour on whatever the president plans to carry on about.

This is the kind of silliness that drives conservatives’ fears of indoctrination.

“It’s one thing for a president to encourage all kids to work hard and stay in school,” said Neal McCluskey of the Cato Institute. “It’s another thing entirely, however, to have the U.S. Department of Education send detailed instructions to public schools nationwide on how to glorify the president and the presidency, and push them to drive social change.”

There’s nothing wrong with the president wanting to address American students, but he really needs to change gears. Keep it simple. Keep it positive. Keep it brief. And for goodness sakes, ditch the supporting materials before more tax money is wasted revising them yet again.

The Clark County School District is handling the situation appropriately. Superintendent Walt Rulffes announced that teachers would not be required to show the speech, but could if they thought it fit with their lesson plans. And if parents are set on keeping their kids away from the president’s speech, they can call their school.

Parents certainly shouldn’t entertain the idea of extending their children’s holiday weekend because of the speech. Rather than teach kids to hide from controversial discourse, parents should engage their children. Talk to them about it before and after the speech, even review the speech or the transcript online.

They’re going to grow up and vote before you know it.

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