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Leaked Memo Reveals White House Distress: Why Don't Schools Want Obama to Speak?


"Something isn't working."

Last year, the White House received applications from more than 1,000 schools in a competition to secure a commencement address from President Barack Obama. But just one year later, it seems schools have lost interest.

A leaked internal White House memo reveals the Obama administration is scrambling to ramp its "Race to the Top Commencement Challenge," facing a serious shortage of applicants less than one week before the deadline. CBS News reports:

The competition was extended from the February 25 deadline until Friday, March 11 after few schools met the original application deadline. CBS News has learned a White House Communications Office internal memo dated February 22 noted "a major issue with the Commencement Challenge."

"As of yesterday we had received 14 applications and the deadline is Friday," the memo said. The memo also urged recipients to, "please keep the application number close hold."

A follow-up memo on February 28 reported receipt of 68 applications. Noting the competition among more than 1,000 schools last year, the memo said, "Something isn't working." It called on staffers to ask "friendly congressional, gubernatorial and mayoral offices" to encourage schools to apply.

"We should also make sure the Cabinet is pushing the competition out to their lists," the memo said. The note reiterated, "We do not want the actual application number out there (we didn't release the number of applications we received last year until after the submission period)-so folks should not use it in their pitches."

On Monday, officials declined to cite the number of applications received so far.

So what does it take to get the President of the United States to speak at your graduation?

The president will travel to the school that is judged to best prepare students for college and careers. The competition is part of Mr. Obama's ultimate goal of making the U.S. the country with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.

The White House has released this video featuring a member of last year's winning class to try and inspire schools to participate this year:

Administration officials were unable to explain the reason for the apparent lack of interest.

"It's a huge opportunity for high schools to tell their story," Education Secretary Arne Duncan told CBS Radio.  Asked about the lagging application numbers, Duncan said, "Folks are working hard." He called on schools to "put their best foot forward and join the competition."

In addition, a press aide from the Department of Ed said the deadline was extended "to provide an ample amount of time to reach out to schools from across the country... Like last year, we anticipate the overwhelming majority will be submitted near the close of the Challenge."

The new deadline for schools to apply is 11:59 p.m. (ET), March 11.

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