Steve Chapman

That's one reason 5 million children are enrolled in private or parochial alternatives. It also helps explain why parents of another 1.5 million -- 1 in 34 kids -- have taken the drastic step of doing the teaching themselves.

Even if Obama had made an exceptional effort not to raise hackles, he would have raised hackles among some Americans. But he didn't make quite the effort he should have.

What particularly provoked suspicion was the Education Department's lesson plan, which recommended that students compose "letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president. These would be collected and redistributed at an appropriate later date by the teacher to make students accountable to their goals." Again: Imagine the liberal uproar had George W. Bush's administration tried that.

By the day of the speech, the administration had retracted the suggestion. But amid Obama's wholesome exhortations was a boast that he is "working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn."

David Boaz, executive vice president of the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington, told me, "That suggests that education is the responsibility of the federal government and the personal responsibility of the president," something some Americans don't buy. Not only that, says Boaz, but it conveys the message that "I, Barack Obama, am fighting for you and fighting against someone" -- an implicit rebuke of his political opponents, many of whom think the emphasis on physical resources misstates the nature of our educational failures.

Maybe his other messages were valuable enough to overshadow that one. But the students who heard Obama's speech are not the only ones who could learn some useful lessons from it.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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