Education chief: Furor over Obama speech 'silly'

WASHINGTON (AP) - The furor surrounding President Barack Obama's upcoming address to the nation's schoolchildren is "just silly," his education chief said Sunday, and a conservative senator who led the Education Department in the first Bush administration suggested teachers make it a civics lesson.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan's department has taken heat for proposed lesson plans distributed to accompany Tuesday's speech. He acknowledged that a section about writing to the president on how students can help him meet education goals was poorly worded. It has been changed.

Debate about conservative objections to the speech has dominated cable television and talk radio for several days, signaling again the stark divisions in the country both over politics and social issues.

Some opponents to the speech claim Obama would try to indoctrinate schoolchildren with what they call his "socialist" agenda.

"That's just silly. They can go to school. They can not watch. It's just, you know, going to be an 18-minute speech," Duncan said.

He said Obama had no intention beyond talking "about personal responsibility and challenging students to take their education very, very seriously."

Sen. Lamar Alexander, education secretary under President George H.W. Bush, said he understood "some of the concern, because, you know, people say, 'Oh, here's another Washington takeover.'

"But of course the president of the United States should be able to address students. And of course, parents and teachers should decide in what context," said Alexander, R-Tenn.

He added, "If I were a teacher, I'd take advantage of it, and I'd put up Lincoln and Eisenhower and Reagan and teach about the presidency, and then I'd put up the head of North Korea and say, 'In that country, you go to jail if you criticize the president. In our country, you have a constitutional right to do it.'"

Duncan said the guides distributed to schools "were put out by teachers, for teachers. And there is one that wasn't worded quite correctly. It was talking about helping the president hit his goal of having the highest percent of college graduates by 2020. He's drawn a line in the sand in that.

"We just clarified that to say write a letter about your own goals and what you're going to do to achieve those goals. So again it's really about personal responsibility and being accountable, setting real goals and having the work ethic to see them through," the secretary said.

Declaring that viewing the speech is "purely voluntary," Duncan said the hubbub is something "I frankly don't pay any attention to." Rather, he said, he is focused "laser-like" on the big problems in the U.S. education system.

The secretary said the speech text will be posted on the White House Web site on Monday.

"There's nothing political about it, and it's a shame that some people have tried to politicize it," Obama adviser David Axelrod added.

Duncan spoke on CBS' "Face the Nation" and Alexander appeared on "Fox News Sunday." Axelrod was on NBC's "Meet the Press."


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