Kansas Grads' Petition Spurs First Lady to Shift Speech

Kansas Grads' Petition Spurs First Lady to Shift Speech
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What a difference a day makes. 

Commencement speaker Michelle Obama settled some Kansas high school pique aimed in her direction after agreeing to deliver remarks in May to Sunflower State seniors a day before they graduate rather than on their big day, the White House announced Thursday.

Ending a fracas over too-few tickets -- a dust-up that might have forced Topeka graduates to limit the number of proud relatives and friends who could attend -- the first lady found a compromise. 

She will speak in Topeka on May 16 at a “Senior Recognition Day” assembly prior to the official graduation ceremonies May 17 for the city’s public high schools. The altered plans responded to complaints from some students and their parents that Mrs. Obama’s participation would limit graduates’ commencement tickets to four or perhaps six, necessitating awkward family exclusions when seniors crossed a stage to grasp their diplomas.

The students’ hand-wringing, chronicled in the Kansas media, underscored the delicacy of layering national meaning atop what is essentially a local family affair at any high school. At least one politically minded Topeka senior did what any savvy teenager might do to protest limited seating: He created an online petition.

After the first lady’s involvement was announced April 17, students at five high schools (whose ceremonies were to be combined) and their parents began to complain when it became clear that large families might have to un-invite grandparents and siblings, aunts and uncles who planned to celebrate with 1,000 graduating seniors on their special day. Extra VIPs and Secret Service security posed extra challenges after Topeka’s plans were well underway. “This is their day, not Michelle Obama’s,” one city petitioner wrote. (The petition also noted the increased duration of the combined ceremony, which would likely extend to six or more hours instead of the usual 2½.)

The friction was smoothed out when the White House and the school district announced Thursday that commencement and the commencement speaker would no longer share a single event.

From the White House perspective, the first lady’s tribute to Topeka’s students will still mark the 60th anniversary of the landmark and unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, which legally ended racial segregation in public schools when handed down May 17, 1954. That decision bolstered the civil rights movement during the 1950s, and eventually turned Topeka’s Monroe Elementary School into a National Park Service Historic Site.

The first lady will deliver two other addresses during commencement season, both with African-American tie-ins. She’ll speak at Dillard University in New Orleans on May 10 to mark “its legacy as one of America’s top historically black universities,” according to the White House. And Mrs. Obama will address graduates of Washington, D.C.’s College Access Program (DC-CAP) June 19 at the Mayflower Hotel “to highlight the important work that CAP is doing to ensure that first-generation, low-income students are graduating from high school ready to pursue a higher degree,” her office announced.

Presidents, vice presidents and their spouses weigh multiple commencement invitations from academic institutions annually, but in truth they often invite themselves to campuses where politics, family ties, tradition or policy aims share the spotlight.

President Obama on May 28 will speak to graduates of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, reprising his appearance at 2010’s commencement in New York. On June 11, he will speak to Worcester Technical High School graduates in Massachusetts, where vocational programs and the school’s graduation rates complement the administration’s education agenda tied to job training and hiring. On June 14, Obama will deliver the commencement speech at University of California, Irvine on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s dedication of the campus. (The president helped celebrate LBJ’s civil rights achievements during an Austin, Texas, event April 10.) 

Vice President Joe Biden, perhaps with young voters and presidential possibilities in mind, will deliver commencement addresses at Florida’s Miami Dade College on May 3, and the University of South Carolina on May 9 (where students are limited to five tickets because of the VEEP’s involvement). He’ll also be in his home state May 31 to address graduates at the University of Delaware.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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