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Obama’s speech to high school also a subtle jobs bill pitch

President Obama promised schoolchildren Wednesday that he would fight for an “educational system that’s worthy of your potential,” in a mostly inspirational speech about studying hard and shooting for straight A’s that made only brief reference to his legislative agenda.

Still, as he delivered his annual back-to-school address at a District of Columbia public high school, Obama told students he was trying to upgrade school buildings and fortify the ranks of classroom teachers — two key elements of his proposed jobs bill.

“We’re working to make sure that you have the most up-to-date schools with the latest tools for learning,” Obama said. “And we’re working to get the best teachers into the classroom as well, so they can help you prepare for college and a future career.”

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The most politically attuned of listeners might notice those careful references to the jobs legislation. As Obama woos the public to pressure Republican lawmakers to adopt his jobs plan, he is taking his sales pitch all over the country, even when addressing students in the middle of the school day.

Obama first rolled out a back-to-school address three years ago amid some concern that he would play politics before his captive audience. That speech, and the one that followed, proved to be academic pep rallies.

Wednesday’s speech was largely the same, but it played out in a more politically charged atmosphere surrounding education policy. Last week Obama announced that he would essentially do away with former President George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” rules, not by getting Congress to pass legislation but by allowing states to seek waivers from the Education Department.

The executive bypass prompted objections from lawmakers, including Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican and former Education secretary. He complained that the waivers would come with a series of new federal rules and thus turn the current Education secretary into “the equivalent of a national school board.”

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Republicans continued to critique the president’s jobs package Wednesday, and the head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce issued a harsh analysis of Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the wealthy to help pay for it.

Schools are a major part of Obama’s $447-billion plan to jolt the stalled economy. As Republicans balk at the idea of spending more money on economic stimulus, the president’s team is trying to make the case that the expenditures would create jobs and represent a long-term investment in America’s children.

Obama plans to visit schools all over the country to highlight the need and try to boost support.

On Wednesday, Obama assured students that he was trying to get good teachers for them, without mentioning the $30 billion in his jobs plan to avert teacher layoffs. Neither did he detail the $30 billion he wants for upgrading school buildings and classrooms.

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Obama encouraged students at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School to shoot for excellent grades but still take risks and “color outside the lines” every once in a while.

He urged students to respect the teachers who make sacrifices for them each day. And he told them about an ethics class he once took that, although it confounded him, influences his thinking today.

“I remember being asked questions like, ‘What matters in life? What does it mean to treat people with respect and dignity?’ ” Obama said. “I still don’t always know all the answers. But if I’d just tuned out because the class sounded boring, I might have missed out on something … that’s still useful to me today.”

cparsons@latimes.com

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