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Obama Delivers Stay-in-School Speech Amid Controversy

President Obama delivers a speech on education at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Va., Tuesday. (AP Photo)

As controversy swirled around his speech to the nation's schoolchildren, President Obama told students Tuesday to take responsibility for their education, go to class and listen and not let failures define 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," Obama said. "And none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities."

Obama delivered his speech at a school in Virginia where he was greeted by a raucous crowd of students. He encouraged them to maintain their focus and use school as a way to succeed despite their background.

But elsewhere, schools were struggling with how to handle what had become a politically sensitive event. The speech had stirred controversy, with some parents, school officials and conservative groups expressing concerns that the president was injecting politics into local education.  

In Florida's Indian River County, the superintendent met with local officials up to the 11th hour to determine how to treat the broadcast. According to the Press Journal, school officials last week decided that the speech had to be taped and reviewed before showing students, meaning it would not be shown live. 

Elsewhere, officials were going ahead with plans to screen the speech, even though prepared remarks were released by the Obama administration Monday. Some Wisconsin schools, for instance, did not watch Obama live. The Elmbrook district's Superintendent Matt Gibson told FOX News that teachers would have a chance to review the message first so they can determine how best to include it in the curriculum. 

In Virginia, Obama urged students to work hard. 

"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," he said. "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."

"Where you are right now doesn't have to determine where you'll end up," he continued. "No one's written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future."

The speech steered clear of any partisan attacks or a push for liberal politics as conservatives had feared. Yet the speech drew fire from conservative critics even before he delivered it.

The White House posted Obama's remarks on its Web site at midday Monday to quell criticism that the speech was intended to indoctrinate students into a socialist agenda. 

Yet some critics still called for parents to have their children boycott the speech amid accusations that Obama is using schools to push a liberal agenda. White House officials, including Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have said the allegations are silly.

But the president's speech got a boost from some Republicans.

GOP Senate candidate Pat Toomey, who is seeking to unseat Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa.,  called Obama's talk "an inspiring and moving speech for students across America."

"Education is the cornerstone of our country's future," Toomey said in a written statement, "and it is important that we relay that message to our young students. The President's emphasis on responsibility and the personal stories about his own education are exactly the kind of inspiring messages our children need to hear from our country's leaders."

Former first lady Laura Bush, wife of Obama's Republican predecessor, said on Monday  she supported Obama's decision to address America's school children.

"There's a place for the president of the United States to talk to school children and encourage school children" to stay in school, Mrs. Bush, a former school teacher, said in a CNN interview.

However, she said believes that parents who were plan to keep their children home because of the president's address had the right to do so.

Florida Republican party chairman Jim Greer, who said last week he was "absolutely appalled that taxpayer dollars are being used to spread President Obama's socialist ideology," said Monday he now favored the speech after changes he said the White House, under political pressure, had made to supporting materials for teachers and to the speech itself.

Obama made no reference in his remarks to the uproar surrounding his speech. Nor did he make an appeal for support for tough causes such as his health care overhaul. He used the talk to tell kids about his at-times clumsy ways as a child and to urge them to set goals and work hard to achieve 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," Obama said. "And none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities."

Schools don't have to show the speech. And some districts have decided not to, partly in response to concerns from parents.

Duncan's department has also taken heat for proposed lesson plans distributed to accompany the speech.

The education secretary has acknowledged that a section about writing to the president on how students could help him meet education goals was poorly worded and has been changed.

In his remarks, Obama also leaves the students with some words of encouragement.

"I expect great things from each of you," he said. "So don't let us down -- don't let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.