President Obama intends to urge America's students today to persevere in their studies and work through setbacks as they begin the new school year, saying, "Your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country."
"What you're learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future," Obama plans to say in a speech at Wakefield High School in Arlington, according to a text of his remarks released yesterday by the White House.
Obama does not enumerate those challenges or mention his political agenda, as many conservatives feared he would when details of the speech and the Education Department's suggested follow-up lessons emerged last week.
Republicans have called Obama's back-to-school address an inappropriate political intrusion into the classroom at a time when the president's agenda, from health care to energy reform, is entering a decisive phase in Congress.
Some parents, meanwhile, have threatened to keep their children out of school today to avoid the speech. The White House took the unusual step of releasing the planned text a day early on its Web site to give parents and others a preview on which to base their decisions.
The criticism arose, in part, from an Education Department recommendation that students write letters to themselves about "what they could do to help the president." That was later changed to a suggestion that students write about "how they can achieve their short-term and long-term educational goals."
Speaking to reporters Monday aboard Air Force One, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs compared the debate over the speech to "an Animal House food fight."
"I think it's a sad, sad day that the political back and forth has intruded on anyone speaking to schoolchildren and teachers and parents about the responsibilities that they have as we enter a new school year," Gibbs said.
Obama, according to the prepared remarks, intends something more generically uplifting than political. He will note that in his past remarks about education he has lectured parents to be more involved in their children's studies, urged teachers to work harder, and demanded that government set high academic standards and hold school districts accountable in meeting them.
"At the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world - and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities," he intends to tell students.
The speech will draw on Obama's own education experience - from the predawn tutoring by his mother when his family lived in Indonesia to his acceptance to law school. But his main message is one of dedication and resilience; he will tell students at one point that "I got a lot of second chances."
"I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work - that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality-TV star, when chances are, you're not going to be any of those things," Obama will say. "But the truth is, being successful is hard."
He will cite the fact that J.K. Rowling's first Harry Potter book was rejected a dozen times before it was finally accepted for publication. Michael Jordan, he intends to say, was cut from his high school basketball team. And he'll describe the against-the-odds achievements of three current and former students from Texas, Illinois, and California.
"But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life - what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you've got going on at home - that's no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude," Obama will say. "That's no excuse for talking back to your teacher or cutting class or dropping out of school. That's no excuse for not trying."