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OUR OPINION: At issue: Lesson plan, not speech

The problem isn't the speech. If President Barack Obama simply had asked for 20 minutes in which tell American schoolchildren to study hard and stay in school, many fewer people would have objected.

The problem isn't the speech. If President Barack Obama simply had asked for 20 minutes in which tell American schoolchildren to study hard and stay in school, many fewer people would have objected.

And those who did object would have had a much weaker case.

The problem is the lesson plan -- the "menu of classroom activities ... to help engage students in the address" that the U.S. Department of Education prepared.

The Obama administration clearly expects some classrooms to spend a lot more time than just 20 minutes learning, talking and writing about the president and his education goals. And some of the suggested activities are uncomfortably cloying in their seeming reverence for the president.

Given that kind of ammunition, it's no surprise critics fired back that the administration was using a captive audience of schoolchildren for political gain.

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It's also no wonder that the criticism resonated, to the point where superintendents around the country now are being pressured about the speech by partisans on both sides.

A political motive by the administration at first seemed overt. The original activities list included a suggestion that students draft letters to themselves discussing "what they can do to help the president."

Hammered by conservatives, the education department removed that line from the menu of activities. Unfortunately, some suggestions that remain are almost as deferential:

"Teachers may post in large print around the classroom notable quotes excerpted from President Obama's speeches on education," one item suggests.

Another begins, "Teachers may ask students to think of the following:

"Why does President Obama want to speak with us today? How will he inspire us? How will he challenge us?"

And "teachers can build background knowledge about the president of the United States and his speech by reading books about presidents and Barack Obama."

The department's suggestions number in the dozens. Not all or even most describe the president in such awestruck terms. But none of them suggests even a hint of critical thinking or honest debate -- such as asking students to consider, say, "What objections, if any, could be raised to the president's speech?" or "Do you think today's speech will succeed in persuading students to stay in school? Why or why not?"

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Obama is entirely within his rights to ask schools to carry a "back to school" speech. Most Americans respect the presidency tremendously and wouldn't begrudge a few minutes of school time.

But in return, the president would be expected to "keep it short" and "keep it nonpolitical." His education department's overeager lesson plan seems to break those rules; and partly as a result, what could have a pleasant moment of national near-unity degenerated into another partisan brawl.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

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