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Unlike last year, Obama's back-to-school speech avoids raucous flap

A year ago, the idea of a persuasive and left-leaning president speaking directly to America’s schoolchildren stirred strong passions among conservatives. But those fears do not appear to have returned for Obama’s back-to-school speech this year.

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Third-graders watch the back-to-school speech broadcast given by President Obama, at Sequoia Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif., Sept. 8, 2009.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File

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When President Obama first proposed a back-to-school speech last year in Arlington, Va., conservatives saw red. But his address Tuesday to Julia R. Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School in Philadelphia is expected to pass without a hitch.

A year ago, even the notion of a persuasive and left-leaning president speaking directly to America’s schoolchildren stirred strong passions. The thought that kids would be required to sit through a partisan stump speech on their first days of school angered many Republicans.

Those fears, at least, have faded this year.

IN PICTURES: Back to school 2010

The text of Tuesday’s speech avoids any reference to a partisan view of things. As in 2009, the president sticks to the classic themes of trying hard, staying in school, and dreaming big things.

But at the same time, Mr. Obama on Tuesday tries to address one thing that pollsters say is driving down his approval ratings: a perception that he doesn’t understand what’s going on in people’s lives – or in this case, the lives of inner-city schoolchildren. This speech is laced with empathetic touches.

“A lot of you are having to act a lot older than you are; to be strong for your family while your brother or sister is serving overseas; to look after younger siblings while your mom works that second shift; to take on a part-time job while your dad is out of work,” he plans to say, according to a text released Monday night by the White House.

“It’s a lot to handle; it’s more than you should have to handle. And it may make you wonder at times what your own future will look like; whether you’ll be able to succeed in school; whether you should set your sights a little lower, and scale back your dreams,” the text reads. “But here is what I came to Masterman to tell you: nobody gets to write your destiny but you.”

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A leading critic to a presidential back-to-school speech last year recanted recently in a written statement. Jim Greer, then chair of Florida’s Republican Party, had warned that the 2009 speech would “indoctrinate America’s children to his socialist agenda.”

“I apologize to the President for my opposition to his speech last year and my efforts to placate the extremists who dominate our party today. My children and I look forward to the president’s speech,” he said in a statement reported by The Miami Herald. (Mr. Greer is being sued by the state GOP after being charged with fraud and money laundering.)

The US Department of Education last week named Masterman a Blue Ribbon School – a designation for schools that have “beat the odds” in helping disadvantaged and minority students achieve. Some 9 in 10 Masterman students rank proficient in state reading and math tests. As an experimental public school, Masterman sets high standards for admitting students and, unlike the neighborhood schools, can exclude students who don’t meet its standards.

These include a dress code (no hats, cutoffs, spandex, boxer shorts, see-through clothing, or exposed underwear, midriffs, backs, or shoulders) and a ban on smoking, gum, weapons, iPods, MP3 players, CD players, or electronic games. Cellphones must be kept out of sight.

IN PICTURES: Back to school 2010


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