Pawlenty supports parents wary of Obama school speech

It's not wrong for a president to speak on education, the governor said, but he questions the content and Obama's motive.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty waded into the national dust-up over President Obama's planned back-to-school televised address and gave his support Friday to parents and schools wary over showing it in classrooms.

Pawlenty said that showing the address, slated to be telecast at 11 a.m. Central Time on Tuesday, could be disruptive and raises concerns "about the content and the motive." The Republican governor also said that the speech is "uninvited."

School officials and parents in Minnesota and across the country continued Friday to question whether the Obama speech will be appropriately non-political. Minnesota's two largest school districts are allowing teachers and administrators to decide whether to show the speech in their classrooms.

"I don't think it's wrong for the president to speak on education issues, you've just got to be careful about how you do it so you don't look like you are using the public school infrastructure for a political purpose," the Republican governor said on WCCO radio.

In a Friday briefing with reporters, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs pointed out that previous presidents -- George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan -- also prepared speeches designed to be shown in schools.

Gibbs dismissed the dust-up over Obama's school address. He said it shows "we've reached a little bit of the silly season" and suggested people will "probably file this under 'Much ado about nothing.'"

Democratic-Farmer-Labor party chair Brian Melendez suggested Pawlenty was "starting to sound as extreme as Michele Bachmann." DNC press secretary Hari Sevugan said the governor, who is considered a possible 2012 presidential candidate, was "clearly trying to out-Palin Sarah Palin."

Of Obama's Tuesday address Pawlenty said: "At a minimum it's disruptive, number two, it's uninvited and number three, if people would like to hear his message they can, on a voluntary basis, go to YouTube or some other source and get it. I don't think he needs to force it upon the nation's school children."

Pawlenty said he understood the address would encourage school children to write to the president.

"There are going to be questions about -- well, what are they are going to do with those names and is that for the purpose of a mailing list?" the governor said on the radio.

A lesson plan distributed by the U.S. Department of Education encouraged students to send letters to the White House describing how they would help support the president.

In the face of criticism, the department dropped that suggestion earlier this week.

The White House has not said airing the speech is required.

"We want to make sure that as many schools and classrooms nationwide can participate in this special opportunity, so we are making the President's address and all the information that comes with it available as widely as possible," says the White House's media page. The media page offers a menu of options for how to watch the speech and "classroom engagement resources."

That has not stopped a wave of Minnesota parents from contacting schools about the speech. Saint Ambrose of Woodbury, a private school with about 600 students in grades K-8 that won't be airing the speech, has gotten about 50 e-mails, calls or visits about the speech, including many at a back-to-school open house earlier this week, principal Matthew Metz said Friday. Most asked straight out whether their children's teachers were going to show the speech, "and when I would give them my response, most of them would say, 'Good,' and get up and walk away," he said. "We aren't watching it, not because of parent pressure, but because it's the first day of school" and students are already going to be busy, he said.

"I just find it interesting that people are worked up about the president encouraging students to do really well, and so I'm hoping that we can find some common ground on it," Metz said.

In the interview, Pawlenty acknowledged that the White House isn't forcing schools to show the speech and some schools will not be doing so. But, he said the way the White House handled the speech was "ham-fisted."

"I'm just saying it should be the students' or the parents' choice," Pawlenty said.

Staff Writer Sarah Lemagie contributed to this report.

Rachel E. Stassen-Berger • 651-292-0164

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