Sunday, September 6, 2009

President Obama and socialist indoctrination

As you likely have heard, President Obama will be giving a video address directly to schools on Tuesday. The focus of his remarks will be on "on the importance of taking responsibility for their [students] success in school." Last Thursday, the first day of schools in the State College Area School District, I learned from some friends in the district that the superintendent had decided to leave it up to individual teachers whether to show the broadcast or not in their classes. If so, I was told, teachers had to allow students to opt out if they or their parents did not want them to participate.

Curious about why this decision had been made, I sent an email Thursday evening to the superintendent, Richard Mextorf, with copies to the school board members. Dr. Mextorf is new to the district, having been in the job for about six months. I've pasted below the full record, recognizing that this gets a bit lengthy, but in the interest of not censoring or selectively editing what he had to say. I should go on record as saying that I would have written him exactly the same email if it had been President Bush rather than Obama.

My email to him, Thursday evening:
Dr. Mextorf:

I have heard from other parents that the district will be requiring written parental permission for students to hear President Obama’s speech on education to the nation’s children next Tuesday. I understand that sometimes rumors about misinformation get started, but if the parental permission requirement is in fact true, I want to let you know how disappointed I am in this decision. I have read the advance information about the president’s speech, and I simply cannot understand how listening to the president exhort children to work harder in school can be considered controversial enough to require parental permission for students’ participation. Given the timing, with the Labor Day holiday on Monday, I think it will be difficult for many parents to provide the required consent. As a parent of two children in the district, as well as a researcher and teacher of educational policy, I find this decision potentially very disturbing.

If this is in fact the district’s decision regarding this activity, I hope you will provide me with an explanation of why the decision was made, and how parents and other community members were included in the decision making process. Thank you in advance for your assistance.

Dr. Donald E. Heller
College Township

His reply Friday morning:
Dear Dr. Heller:

Thank you for the opportunity to address your concern:
1. Viewing the address will be at the discretion of the teacher, depending on relevance to the curriculum.
2. Students must be allowed to opt out of the address, with an alternative activity being provided during that time.
3. A link to the address will be provided on our website for those who did not have the opportunity to view the address
4. Permission slips are not required for this activity.


Richard J. Mextorf
Superintendent of Schools
State College Area School District

Since he didn't address the "why" aspect of my question, I sent this reply:
Dr. Mextor: Thanks for your quick reply and clarification of the opt out procedure. I still would like to know why the president’s speech has been identified as an “opt out” activity, however. For example, we don’t normally provide an opportunity for students to opt out of a discussion of the Pythagorean theorem in geometry class, or a discussion of the framing of the U.S. Constitution in U.S. History class, so I wonder why the president’s speech seems to have been singled out in this fashion.

One high school student has reported to me that his teacher told the class that they would be able to watch the speech only if everyone in the class agreed to do so; if one student decided to opt out, then this would remove the opportunity for the class to watch the speech together (and I fully recognize that teenagers are on occasion somewhat erroneous in what they report back on what happens in school). I know that your office cannot control what each teacher does in the classroom, but this example is also troublesome. While providing the students the opportunity to watch the speech at a later time on the district website is an alternative, this will not allow for class discussion between teachers and students of the president’s speech. The opportunity to have a guided discussion about the president’s speech and the issues he raises about American education can be a valuable civics lesson for all students.

My concern is that providing students with the opt out option identifies this as a “controversial” activity along the lines of others, such as health education, that students (and parents) are normally provided with an opportunity to opt out of. I do not understand why this speech by the president is seen as controversial enough to be flagged as an opt out activity. So if you could explain why it has been, and the procedure behind the decision, I would appreciate it.

Thanks again.

Don Heller

His response, within an hour:
Dr. Heller:

We have had stakeholders weigh-in on both sides of the issue; some have suggested that, if we mandate that students must view the address, we are forcing children to be subjected to socialism reminiscent of the former Soviet Union. Others suggest we are shirking our civic responsibility if we do not see to it that all children view the address.

I made the decision to let individual teachers decide, based on their judgment about relevance to the curriculum on that day and at that time. I trust our teachers as professionals to make responsible decisions regarding viewing the address. The opt out is to allow parents to decide for their child. The link to the website is to make it easier for parents to view the message with their child, should they not have an opportunity to do so in school.

Thank you for your sensitivity regarding the information from the high school student. In situations such as this, I find it beneficial to give the teacher the benefit of the doubt that I do not have all the information, the proper context, or that the information is part of a bigger picture.

The guidelines I established were to give teachers the opportunity to make an informed, professional judgment, to allow parents the right to remove their child if desired, and for parents and students to have access to the address if they did not have opportunity to do so at school.


Richard J. Mextorf
Superintendent of Schools
State College Area School District

At that point I decided to bring the dialogue to a close:
I appreciate your sharing the explanation of the process. As one who teaches the politics of education, I’m very sensitive to the pressures you face on issues like this, and the difficulty of trying to please everyone.

Don Heller

As one friend wrote to me after I posted the correspondence on Facebook, "He's punting, and I am *completely* unimpressed by him." I'm sure the superintendent received complaints from some parents, and he probably decided that the path of least resistance was to allow an opt out. So this can be interpreted as a punt, for sure. As I wrote to him, I am sympathetic to the situation he is put in. With the caveat that I have never met the man, and know little about him (the search and his appointment occurred while we were in London earlier this year, so I didn't follow it at all), I doubt that he believes that Obama's speech is an attempt at "forcing children to be subjected to socialism reminiscent of the former Soviet Union." I'm sure he was relating what he had been hearing from some parents. I would imagine and hope that if he had been around a while longer, and had developed more political capital (both with the community as well as his board), he may have been willing to stand up to these parents. The district's website has nothing about this decision, so for the great majority of parents, all they may know about it (if anything at all) is any materials the teachers may have sent home with the children.

In theory, I imagine the district will allow a parent to opt their child out of pretty much any part of their education. But as I wrote to him, singling out this activity - and giving it that attention - sends the wrong message to teachers, students, and parents. There has been nothing that I have seen in the advance publicity about this speech, either from the White House itself, or in the news reports about it, that Obama will be talking about anything controversial. Nevertheless, conservative talk radio and the ever-vigilant Fox News have been raising the "indoctrination" flag and urging parents to boycott the speech.  Here's one good editorial in the LA Times about it, and here's the chairman of the Florida Republican Party ranting about Obama's speech (just proving once again that sage statement by Mark Twain, "Better to keep one's mouth shut and be thought a fool, then to open it and remove all doubt").

I frequently have both school administrators and teachers in my classes, and we talk a lot about the difficulty of navigating political controversies in the schools. This is one example, however, where I would like to see the district leadership show more guts and be proactive in standing up to the political right.


  1. After the President of the United States speaks to school children about the value of education, Republicans will make opposing comments extolling ignorance.


  2. Sounds good -- opposing comments always welcome!

  3. Now that we have the text of the speech the whole thing seems so overblown. SIGH.

  4. You didn't really think that the actual content was going to make a difference, did you?