Adam Doster

How Obama Could Radically Alter the Election Map This Fall


Nineteen ninety-two was a crucial election year in Illinois. Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was hoping to carry a swing state that President George H.W. Bush had won by a scant 2 percentage points four years earlier, and Illinois' Cook County Recorder of Deeds Carol Moseley Braun was attempting to become the nation's first African-American female senator. Close observers believed that a swell in black turnout could make the difference in both contests, but activists feared that the leadership of Chicago's Democratic Party -- which historically hadn't pushed registration in majority-black wards -- would squander the opportunity.



In stepped a young organizer named Barack Obama. Fresh out of Harvard Law School, Obama moved to Chicago to head up the local branch of Project Vote, a D.C.-based non-partisan voter registration organization focused in low-income communities of color. Recruiting staff and volunteers from community groups and black churches, he helped train 700 deputy registrars and devised a comprehensive media campaign based around the slogan "It's a Power Thing." His volunteers hit the streets and registered more than 150,000 black voters in only six months. According to a 1993 report from Chicago magazine, the elections "turned on these totals."



Sixteen years later, in the midst of his own presidential campaign, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) hasn't forgotten the crucial lesson he learned canvassing Chicago's South Side: Activating underrepresented communities can dramatically alter close elections.



Using his massive volunteer base, the one-time organizer is now adapting his Chicago experience for the national stage, leading similar targeted drives in all 50 states. Combined with his ability to inspire new voters and the continued efforts of long-established voter registration organizations, a registration boom could reconfigure the electoral map come November.


Why slice pie? Let's grow it!


Lynne Schwartz, a veteran clinical psychologist based in Ann Arbor, Mich., was drawn to Obama well before he rose to national prominence. Schwartz focuses on juvenile justice reform, and Obama had led efforts in Chicago to combat legislation that would have put more juvenile offenders into the adult system. After reading his first book, watching him deliver his famous 2004 Democratic National Convention speech, and learning about his commitment to the Constitution and consensus-based problem solving, Schwartz knew she had found her candidate.



"I kept hearing him talking about healing the nation and repairing the world," she says, "and I resonated with that at such a visceral level."



When he announced his presidential candidacy, Schwartz jumped in, volunteering as the Washtenaw County organizer for the fledgling Michiganders for Obama. Although the Illinois senator wasn't on the ballot in her state and had made no effort to campaign there, her organization pounded the sidewalks of Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti anyway, talking to voters about the confusing circumstances of their early primary and the value of voting "uncommitted."



Their ground game paid off. "Uncommitted" received 45 percent in Washtenaw, beating the 43 percent Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) received in the county.



Following the primary, Schwartz stayed busy, phone banking from her personal computer, hosting local fundraisers, traveling to Ohio to canvass, and even winning a seat as a delegate to the national convention. But her biggest thrill came when the national campaign tapped her to run the local branch of the Vote for Change voter registration drive, a signal that the folks in Chicago were taking her organizing seriously.



Vote for Change is the latest iteration of the Obama campaign's comprehensive electoral ground game, one that will build off the methodical and underreported registration efforts staged by Obama supporters during the primary season. Just in the late contests alone, campaign volunteers enlisted 200,000 new Democrats in Pennsylvania, 165,000 in North Carolina and more than 150,000 in Indiana.



"Recent voter registration drives conducted by our campaign have registered significant numbers of voters across this country," says Obama spokeswoman Shannon Gilson. "We feel like this really scratches the surface of what's possible."



Launched in all 50 states on May 10, Vote for Change has been dispatching Obama staffers across the country to marshal volunteers through the campaign's massive online database and train them in the basics of voter registration. Working with local organizers and using similar "micro-targeting" techniques honed by the GOP in the 2004 presidential campaign, Obama supporters will pepper precincts for the next six months in search of eligible but inactive political participants likely to value Obama's message of change.



"It's reaching out to our base of supporters," says Gilson, "and empowering them to reach out into their communities to register their friends and neighbors."



Chosen as one of the Vote for Change staging sites, Ann Arbor received a full-time organizer from the Obama campaign in late April, which Schwartz says has helped immensely with volunteer coordination and outreach.



"What has been outstanding and different from any other campaign that I've participated in has been the synergy," says Schwartz. "It's not like some campaign is coming in and the people doing the work on the ground for months are thrown under the bus. ... They have a strong interest in our ideas and how we do things here."



Following a successful kick-off on May 17, momentum in Washtenaw has been growing. Volunteer organizers have flooded Schwartz's Wednesday planning meetings, each with their own list of potential targets and tactics. On the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, 42 Obama supporters traveled to Ypsilanti and registered close to 100 people, many of whom have never voted.



Schwartz, who maintains she isn't easily inspired, says she is continually stunned by both the professionalism of the national campaign and the enthusiasm local organizers bring to the work. "I go to work and I get home and there are new ideas being run by me that [are] just amazing," she says. "There's so much creativity and so much energy."



Such enthusiasm will be needed to reach the campaign's ambitious registration targets, which Gilson hinted would be in the millions. It helps that Obama has already won the support of many members of the voting rights community, who find his commitment to increasing the franchise refreshing.



"For many years, candidates ... tended to compete for people who are already in the electorate, rather than expanding the electorate," says Project Vote Deputy Director Michael Slater. "They thought of a slice of the pie rather than trying to grow the pie. So it's interesting to see a candidate that is really talking about growing the size of the electorate."
It's not just Obama



While Obama's drive has drawn attention for its distinctiveness among presidential contenders, focusing only on the campaign's work neglects the crucial fieldwork that institutionalized voter registration organizations will be undertaking this cycle.



To be sure, controversy has embroiled a few high-profile operations. Last year, the Federal Election Commission (FEC) fined the now-disbanded America Coming Together $775,000 for raising contributions that violated federal limits. This cycle, the North Carolina attorney general ordered Women's Voices, Women Vote to cease robo-calling voters with misleading messages after the primary registration date had past.



But beyond those limited transgressions, a slew of successful organizations will ramp up their own efforts in the coming months.



Among them is Project Vote, Obama's employer in 1992. Working in partnership with ACORN, the nation's largest community organization of low- and moderate-income families, Project Vote orchestrates comprehensive drives targeted in low-income urban communities. Organizers are trained to canvass outside of locations where residents generally congregate -- grocery stores, bus stops and religious institutions.



According to Slater, Project Vote registered more than 1 million voters in each of the last two cycles. Sticking to its time-tested formula, Project Vote has set a goal of 1.2 million new registrants.



Rock the Vote, the nation's most recognizable youth registration outfit, has made encouraging advances in online registration, a tool that hasn't matured as quickly as online political fundraising or organizing. Partnering with consumer rights organization Working Assets, Rock the Vote devised a voter registration widget -- a portable application that political organizations, bloggers or candidates can embed on their websites using a simple HTML code.



Since last July, the widget has been added to 8,500 sites, and more than 600,000 young people have downloaded registration forms.



"What we do know is that registration is the biggest barrier to young people voting," says Rock the Vote Communications Director Chrissy Faessen, "so the more young people we can get registered, the more we can send them out to the polls."



Combined with its robust fieldwork, Faessen estimates that Rock the Vote could enlist 2 million new voters in this cycle.


The Poblano model


If winning elections is your primary focus, as is the case for most Obama volunteers, boosting registration levels is only as valuable as the votes it produces.



"About 64 million Americans are eligible to vote but are not registered to vote," says Slater. "That's about one-third of the entire voting-eligible population. So the opportunity to expand the electorate is there."



Among underrepresented constituencies, the statistics are even starker. While the voting rate for young people between ages 18 and 24 shot up 11 percentage points from 2000 to 2004, the registration rate sits at a paltry 58 percent. It's not much better for voters of color: African Americans (69 percent), Latinos (58 percent), and Asians (52 percent) all trail non-Hispanic white voters (75 percent). (If people of color were to vote at the same percentage as whites, there would be more than 5.5 million votes.)



Considering Obama's success with much of these segments of the electorate, boosting turnout among young people and voters of color is where the Democratic nominee is most situated to broaden his base.



The "Poblano Model" best articulates the potential benefits of targeted voter mobilization. "Poblano" is Nate Silver, a formerly anonymous 30-year-old statistician, one-time DailyKos diarist and author of the website FiveThirtyEight.com. Silver has garnered considerable notoriety with his clever regression model -- an electoral simulation engine that uses state-by-state polling data and demographic variables to predict election outcomes in individual states. Using the formula in early May, the blogger correctly projected the results of the critical primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, outperforming five major national polling operations.



In mid-May, Silver turned his attention to the general election, working with the Illinois-based political website Progress Illinois (Disclosure: I'm a reporter-blogger for the site but had no hand in the article) to examine how gradual increases in turnout among certain demographic groups might affect the outcome of an Obama-Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) presidential race. The results were instructive.



Consider Rock the Vote's target audience. Silver estimates that boosting the youth vote by 25 percent nationwide would give Obama 16 additional electoral votes, mainly in the Upper Midwest (Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin) where youth turnout is historically high. A jump in Latino rates could play a key factor in the Mountain West states of Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, as well.



But the African-American turnout could be the key to the election. According to average head-to-head polling numbers, blacks break for Obama at a 94 percent to 6 percent clip. With each 10 percent increase in black turnout nationwide, Obama gains an average of 13 electoral votes, while his chance of winning jumps by almost 7 percentage points.



The U.S. senator from Illinois stands to gain the most in battleground Rustbelt states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania, as well as in southern states -- North Carolina and Virginia among them -- where Democrats have struggled at the presidential level for decades.



"There are scenarios," Silver told ProgressIllinois.com, "where you could really have -- not a landslide -- but Obama winning 350-plus electoral votes ... just with a mild increase in African-American turnout."



Like all electoral estimates, Silver's analysis should be taken with a sizeable grain of salt. Polls this early in the process aren't reliable and the regression model has its flaws. Being young and black isn't mutually exclusive, a crossover that the simulation fails to address. But these numbers, coupled with Silver's track record, should strike fear into the McCain camp, whose ground game is already suffering from a resource gap with Democrats and a lack of enthusiasm among the GOP's evangelical base.


A long fall?


The beauty of Obama's registration drive is its universal value. Some progressive activists have raised concerns about the senator's growing consolidation of the party apparatus, embodied in his rejection of liberal independent 527 organizations that can't openly support a candidate but can run negative advertisements. However, voter registration outreach doesn't stand up to the same scrutiny.



"I don't think that the Obama campaign has the capacity to replace anything that's currently in the field," says Slater, "nor do I think it really has the ability to undermine the effectiveness of any of the work the nonprofit sector is doing because of the size of the audience."



Democratic candidates at the congressional and statewide levels will ultimately benefit as well: the more Democratic voters that exercise their franchise, the more races a resource-strapped GOP will have to defend.



"That's the big wild card for Republicans," Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen recently told the Washington Post. "They can't plan on a conventional turnout scenario if Barack Obama is the nominee."



Like many Michigan Democrats, Schwartz says that bringing new voters into the fold will keep the state in the Democratic column this fall. If supporters like her are as successful as their favored candidate was on Chicago's South Side in 1992, McCain is in for a long fall and a cold winter.

Is Your Child Being Left Behind?

The Cerveny Middle School in Northwest Detroit looks like any other aging public school in a depressed urban area. The ominous brick structure is checkered with Cold War-era bomb shelter signs, the linoleum tile floors are scuffed from years of foot traffic and a busted clock rests on a hallway wall in dire need of a paint job.

But one classroom on the second floor is markedly different. A Malcolm X quotation -- "I never felt free until I began to read" -- lines the outer wall, and Gary Paulsen's teenage classic Hatchet leans against the chalkboard alongside a biography of Che Guevara. When the bell rings, a seventh grade language arts class enters the room and begins an orderly, active and sophisticated discussion about the effects of depopulation on their once-enormous city. Welcome to English class with Nate Walker.

Walker, 26, in his fourth year as English teacher, basketball coach and drama director at Cerveny, is tired of the status quo in education. Instead of using customary textbooks or worksheets, he applies state and federal standards to materials and activities that he crafts with his students' interests in mind. During a recent lesson on expository essays, Walker challenged his students to develop a research question, thesis statement and supporting arguments about truancy in the Detroit Public Schools. He then let them debate. "I give [the students] a lot of freedom to explore their own ideas," he says. "Everyone has a voice. It's interactive."

By learning reading through dialogue and communication, Walker's students develop analytic abilities while simultaneously cultivating the skills to pass any test thrown their way. They also behave and enjoy themselves; something that Walker insists wasn't always the case. "I work really hard to try and build a positive learning environment," says Walker, "a classroom that people want to come to." After witnessing Walker in action for two hours, it is clear that he understands and embraces the complexities of educating children. The same cannot be said about leaders in Washington.

Reauthorization on the horizon

On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), his most significant domestic policy initiative. Over the last five years, this sweeping legislation transformed K-12 education, generating supporters and detractors in the process. This year, NCLB is up for reauthorization, amid growing concerns that the bill is not achieving its goals. The resulting debate will galvanize citizens and policymakers concerned with the state of American education.

Introduced in early 2001, NCLB benefited from a groundswell of national unity following 9/11. Congress passed it in an overwhelming bipartisan vote. Many of NCLB's major tenets were derived from school reform efforts instituted in Texas when Bush was governor, but prominent Democrats Rep. George Miller (Calif.) and Sen. Edward Kennedy (Mass.) were instrumental in revising the original draft.

All three of these players have made it clear that they will work toward reauthorization. With Democrats now in control of Congress, Miller has assumed chairmanship of the newly renamed House Committee on Education and Labor, and Kennedy heads the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, meaning both will set the agenda in their respective chambers.

Both also claim that reauthorization of NCLB is a high priority. Likewise, in his recent State of the Union address, Bush said that NCLB "has worked for America's children -- and I ask Congress to reauthorize this good law." To improve NCLB's public image, the administration recently unveiled a snazzy American flag-themed logo for the legislation.

Yet with renewal right around the corner, many Americans remain unclear about what NCLB does. According to a poll conducted in the fall of 2005 by Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup, 54 percent of parents with children in public schools said they knew little or nothing about the law. That's not surprising -- teasing out the key points of the 670-page bill can be overwhelming.

Essentially, NCLB reauthorizes previous federal education mandates in hopes of improving the performance of all K-12 students, thereby eradicating what Bush has called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." To do this, the law relies on a strict accountability system, called Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP).

AYP divides students into subgroups -- all ethnic/racial groups present in the school, low-income students, students with disabilities and students with limited English proficiency -- and requires that each subgroup in a school reach state-determined levels of proficiency on standardized tests in math and reading. If one subgroup fails, the entire school fails. By the 2013-2014 school year, the law will require all states to set their levels of proficiency at 100 percent.

For schools that fail, NCLB institutes a series of sanctions and remedies that force schools to improve and at the same time gives students attending low-performing institutions a series of options. After two years of failure, schools are deemed "in need of improvement," meaning that school administrators must devise a two-year improvement plan following strict peer-reviewed guidelines and that students must be allowed to transfer to another school in the district or a nearby charter school.

A third year requires the offering of supplemental services like tutoring, a fourth year triggers "corrective action" -- such as changes in staff and curriculum and the extension of the school day or year -- and a fifth year requires the complete restructuring of the school, which in many cases means the opening of a charter school in its place.

In the case of Cerveny, the school was reconstituted after failing to meet AYP for five straight years. However, its performance plan left some hiring responsibilities to the principal, a unique stipulation that Walker says was critical to the school's recent improvement. Cerveny maintained some local autonomy and teacher stability, and students passed their reading proficiency levels for the first time last year.

NCLB flaws and motives

Although some argue that it's too early to pass judgment, recent evidence suggests that the bill has fallen short of its lofty goals, leaving parents, educators and legislators discontented. Three major studies released in November reported persistent achievement gaps between students of different racial, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds. According to the Northwest Evaluation Association, an Oregon nonprofit testing organization that studied the results of 500,000 reading and math tests administered in 24 states between 2004 and 2005, pupils attending poor schools achieved less growth than those attending rich schools for each subgroup at every grade level. It found the same variance between students of color and white students.

The Educational Testing Service, a nonprofit assessment development and research organization, reported similar findings; in 2005 black students scored considerably lower than white students in math, science and reading. And a study by the Policy Analysis for California Education found that achievement gaps in California actually widened over the past five years, which runs counter to Bush's insistence that the law is successfully addressing educational discrepancies.

Andrew Rotherham, co-director of the education policy think tank Education Sector and a former assistant to President Clinton for domestic policy, sees these disparities as fundamentally unjust. "What's dehumanizing is that the odds of outcome are better off if you are rich and dumb than if you are poor and smart," he says.

Upset with the lack of progress, citizens outside of Washington have leveled more systemic criticisms at the law. Many argue that high-stakes testing is poor motivation for struggling students. In her book In Defense of Education: When Politics, Profit, and Education Collide, Elaine Garan asks, "Can't we reasonably assume that high-stakes, high-pressure testing, the threat of failure, and all the time wasted on test preparation are turnoffs rather than incentives?"

Critics also contend that by elevating the importance of test results, teachers must narrow their curriculums and exclude crucial but non-tested subjects like history, art, foreign language, music and physical education.

The most damning criticism of the law is aimed at its crude and unrealistic proficiency goals. By using one annual test score as a measurement of attainment, AYP focuses on achievement to the exclusion of assessing student growth. "We're placing the emphasis on the product of the educational process instead of the process [of learning] itself," says Walker.

In October 2004, a coalition of national educational, civil rights and religious groups produced a "Joint Organizational Statement on NCLB" that has since gathered more than 100 signatories. Their first recommendation was "to replace the law's arbitrary proficient targets with ambitious achievement targets based on rates of success actually achieved by the most effective public schools."

It is the unreasonable proficiency goals that have convinced many that the hidden agenda of NCLB is to sacrifice the public education system in the name of profit, either through the development of expensive and privately produced supplementary education materials or the eventual privatization of schools. "NCLB is a dollars game and it needs to be understood on that level," says Walker. "It has nothing to do with the children -- it has to do with making people rich."

Private tutoring, for example, has witnessed explosive growth since the law's inception. ThinkEquity Partners, a San Francisco-based investment bank, estimates that public schools will funnel more than $900 million dollars to private tutors in 2006-2007, up from $300 million in 2003-2004. Textbook publishers are exacting similarly huge profits. McGraw Hill, which publishes the materials for NCLB's Reading First program, cited in its Quarterly Report that sales in the Elementary and High School market were critical to their frequent double-digit growth in earnings per share (17.6 percent in the second quarter of 2006).

The Bush administration has also provided the opposition plenty of ammunition. Ignite Learning, a company owned by the president's brother Neil and backed financially by Saudi Prince Alwaleed Bin Talai, developed a system last year named COW, or "curriculum on wheels." COW is a high-tech instruction aide for teachers that expects to produce $5 million dollars in revenue in 2006, according to BusinessWeek. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, former First Lady Barbara Bush donated an undisclosed amount of money to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund with explicit directions that it be spent only on educational software produced by, you guessed it, Ignite Learning.

Perhaps most devastating, NCLB has had a chilling impact on discussions about alternative educational philosophies and techniques. To educate American children effectively, Walker says policymakers and educators alike must break from the long-accepted U.S. pedagogical framework and re-envision the role of education in the 21st century.

Lawmakers crafted NCLB using an outdated understanding of the economy. The industrial economy of the 20th century required obedience and rapid cognition, skills that tests cultivate sufficiently. Now, as semi-skilled labor disappears -- the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects a 21.2 percent increase in professional occupations from 2004-2014 and a one percent decrease in production employment -- command-and-control education methods are training students for non-existent jobs.

Instead, educators should focus on fostering the growth of critical thought in order to prepare students for a life of productive citizenship. "Because that struggling kid is going to be put into the world in six or seven years, we need to advocate education for citizenship if we really want any hope," Walker says.

Walker not only uses dialogue to encourage students' independent-thinking skills, but also plans direct-action projects that link class material with the student's immediate surroundings. For example, two years ago, after reading a story about segregation and the lack of quality educational resources black students receive, Walker's students painted the lockers in their hallway to improve their physical environment.

Though this was a relatively small act, advocates ranging from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs have long argued that such praxis-based projects encourage civic engagement by making children aware that they are social agents, capable of redefining and revitalizing their schools and neighborhoods.

The politics of renewal

The lack of progress under NCLB, coupled with the new political landscape of the 110th Congress, will likely complicate the reauthorization process. Many recently elected Democrats, who did not participate in the construction of the law, bemoaned NCLB throughout their campaigns.

Tim Walz, a high school geography teacher and the newly elected representative of Minnesota's 1st District, called the bill "an uneven, bureaucratic nightmare [that] harms the students and schools who need it most." Meanwhile, Republican legislators are increasingly voicing their displeasure about the greater federalism that NCLB mandates. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) recently told an audience at the Heritage Foundation, "You can't have quality development with a top-down approach. It's time to change the way we're thinking about [NCLB] because it's not working."

"NCLB is not just a straight left-right, Republicans and Democrats issue," says Rotherham. "There are real intra-party disagreements about the legislation, which means it is a less likely candidate to get done in this environment."

On Jan. 24, the administration attempted to placate critics like DeMint when it released "Building on Results: A Blueprint for Strengthening NCLB," which largely emphasized the need for increased school choice and local control. But Democrats, including Kennedy and Miller, immediately called it a non-starter.

Even with these divisions, complete repeal seems unlikely; the political will and the power of the authors will not allow for a comprehensive reinterpretation of the federal government's role in education. For Bush, NCLB is the only substantial bipartisan domestic policy he has passed in six years, so it is important for both his legacy and his attempts to pass favored legislation through the new Congress.

Conversely, Kennedy and Miller, steadfast supporters of testing and accountability, believe that the law is well intentioned, just poorly executed. The two men will likely focus the debate in Washington on ways to fine-tune the bill. Measures should include increasing funding to reach the full amount initially promised during authorization and putting more qualified teachers in the classroom. With these political realities, Rotherham believes that full reauthorization -- with only limited changes -- will happen, but not until after the next presidential election.

In the meantime, legislators must take additional steps to fulfill the promises guaranteed by NCLB. Emphasis should be placed on the other major section of the bill, the Highly Qualified Teacher Provision (HQT). Authored primarily by Miller, HQT requires that all children be taught by a teacher with a bachelor's degree and state-certification (among other requirements) in core academic subjects like English, reading, science and math.

Initially, the provision wasn't taken seriously in Washington -- zero states passed the first deadline and no legitimate sanctions were ever crafted, so a one-year extension was granted. "The Bush Administration championed a $100 million dollar teacher incentive, but that's like throwing a bucket of water into the ocean," says Rotherman. To catch up, districts are now taking rash and ineffective steps. In Baltimore, classroom assistants deemed highly-qualified were forced to transfer to high-poverty schools in the middle of the year.

Even HQT is not without its opponents. Aaron Tang, co-director of Our Education, a youth organizing organization, believes HQT fails to differentiate between qualified and quality teachers. "Having a few extra pieces of paper doesn't guarantee that a person can educate or inspire students," Tang says. He would like to see the government explore modes of alternative certification, such as the New York City Teaching Fellows (NYCTF) program, which awards mid-career professionals, recent college graduates and retirees fellowships to teach in New York City's underperforming and understaffed schools. In just six years, the program has placed 7,500 fellows in the nation's largest district, totaling almost 10 percent of the entire system.

By reducing the barriers to entry, NYCTF and similar programs allow eager college graduates or people in related fields, such as doctors or scientists, the chance to provide a welcome infusion of human capital. Walker himself was a sociology major who took advantage of alternative certification through the Teach for America program. Without the aid of alternatively certified teachers like Walker, it seems unlikely that Cerveny would have passed its reading tests in 2006.

But education reform can't be viewed in a vacuum. Studies show that test-score discrepancies appear as early as kindergarten, proving that factors outside of schools largely contribute to gaps in achievement. If Congress is serious about leaving no child behind, it must implement measures to reduce family and youth poverty, such as eradicating gaps in health care coverage and raising stagnating wages for Americans who work long hours away from their children.

When Walker asked his students to produce supporting arguments about why Detroit schools had high truancy rates, the 20 seventh graders in his class didn't hesitate: Kids aren't taught anything of value; it can be embarrassing to try and catch up if a student is pegged as struggling; and students lack support from their parents, teachers and peers.

More support from legislators wouldn't hurt either.

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