Since when is a back-to-school speech urging the country's children to work hard and get good grades fodder for a controversy?

When the messenger is President Obama and conservative activists are willing to use an innocuous speech on education to push political rancor to new depths.

To be sure, other presidents - most recently George H.W. Bush and Ronald Reagan - have given similar speeches to schoolchildren and were soundly criticized by the Democrats, showing that partisanship cuts both ways.

But even before hearing or reading Obama's speech, critics began making outlandish charges last week that the president would seek to indoctrinate youngsters with a socialist agenda.

Critics were proven wrong when the White House released the text of the speech a day early. But by then the damage had been done by the bogus claims and partisan grandstanding.

Some parents refused to let their children hear the president's remarks, and schools - including many in the region - took a narrow-minded view and refused to show the speech.

What a missed opportunity and perfect teaching moment for students and teachers to set the tone and raise the achievement bar for the start of a new school year. Schools that were unable or afraid to participate yesterday should still make time to show the speech at a later date.

Obama delivered an encouraging message yesterday that resembled the type of pep talk most parents or principals would give students on the first day of school: Stay in school. Go to class. Study and work hard. Listen to your teachers. Take responsibility for your education. And pursue your dreams - no matter how ambitious.

"Even when you're struggling, even when you're discouraged and you feel like other people have given up on you, don't ever give up on yourself," Obama said.

Rather than a sinister plot to corrupt young minds, that sounds like sound advice from a president who has made education a priority. The message was especially refreshing at a time when the country is so divided over other pressing domestic and foreign issues.

Obama, who graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School, used his own life story of a modest upbringing and overcoming adversity to inspire youngsters.

The message - coming from the first African American president - should resonate in schools across the country, especially in struggling and failing urban districts like Philadelphia where nearly half of the students drop out. Nationally, about 30 percent of students leave school without earning a diploma.

It should also serve as a timely reminder that public education policy - ranging from charter schools to merit pay and standardized tests - deserves a place on the agenda. And not just on the first day of school.