Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Political Engine vs The School House

As many of my readers know, I work in the communications department of a public school district in north Texas. Last week's plans were derailed by the announcement of President Obama's Tuesday, September 8 live address to students. Like many, our district became a center for lively debate and spirited feedback by our community.

In no way am I here to disparage any of the parents or community members who called to, ahem, "discuss" the merits of showing or not showing the President's address to students. I'd rather focus on an interesting phenomenon in communication and why the headaches are worth it.

School PR and a Presidential Address
As the topic heated up for school districts, we reached out to other school PR teams in our area, across the state, and even a few friends across the country. It was important to find out what they were hearing, how they were handling the calls/e-mails, and if any decisions had been made on showing the broadcast. (Photo credit: darkmatter)

The common themes we heard from our brothers and sisters in school PR were ones of political leanings being argued against the educational decision-making process. Of course this is nothing new, we often have to balance the political winds that blow in a community with educational needs, mandates, and expectations. But this time, the contrast was so stark as to see that we had all been thrust into a no-win situation.

The difference was in the language that was used. While most school districts were trying to internally decide and discuss the instructional merits and curricular needs, we all were hearing arguments both for and against live (as well as taped) broadcasts of President Obama's address that hinged squarely on the shoulders of political dogma. (In our area, many of the calls began, I believed, during and after a local conservative talk-radio show.)

Bottom-line: We weren't going to win over the hearts and minds of our communities because, in this instance, we were speaking different languages and looking at the same thing through different lenses. And this brings me to the bigger positive of the ordeal.

Spotlight on Education
For the many extra hours, meetings, arguments, e-mails, phone calls with media friends and decisions ultimately made, I will still be thankful for one big thing. The nation was talking about education for a change.

In two days time, our neighbor asked, sports-talk radio shows discussed it, I read (and commented) on Facebook friends' wall postings as well as talked with random family members who don't usually engage in these types of talks. They were all talking about education and the issue of Obama's address along with the mainstream media:

There is little doubt in my mind that on Tuesday, September 8 at 12:00 pm EDT, many people will stop what they are doing at work, school, and home to tune-in to the live broadcast of Obama's address just for the curiosity of it. Many will want to confirm their fears or solidify there beliefs, but they all will hear the message or at least hear of it. The address will continue to get local and national media coverage. Parents and students will get asked to share their thoughts via interviews. Pundits will claim righteousness or indifference. The machine will roll and just maybe, a greater discussion will open up on addressing the common issues that plague education.

It is for this reason that I can be thankful for the havoc and short-term PR problems we'll face because they are outweighed by a larger (much-needed) discussion about education in this country. Further, I think we can all be a little calmer if in fact the Presidential address stays within the realm of wanting students to take personal responsibility for their own education, to set goals, and to not only stay in school but make the most of it.

Those are good lessons and a debate worth having.

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