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Pa. boys are at risk in school

It's a working-class white concern, and a can't-miss issue for Obama.

Richard Whitmire

is president of the National Education

Writers Association

Barack Obama's advisers know that winning in Pennsylvania requires shrinking Hillary Clinton's wide lead among "Casey Democrats," working-class whites who were fond of their former Gov Robert Casey.

The themes both Obama and Clinton aired out in Ohio to attract those voters, such as attacking NAFTA and decrying lapses in health-care coverage, undoubtedly will resurface in the coming weeks. But there's one more issue affecting these voters that the candidates haven't aired. And it's Hillary-proof.

Anyone visiting the homes of these white, working-class voters will notice an odd pattern. Chances are, their daughters are doing well in school, whether it be high school or college. The daughters bring home better-than-average grades, have careers in mind, and are on realistic tracks to achieve their goals.

As for their sons, not so much. Chances are, their grades are poor, their lives disorganized, and their futures uncertain.

Why is this issue Hillary-proof? Because her staunchest supporters, feminists of a certain age (think Geraldine Ferraro here), continue to insist that girls, not boys, are the ones at risk in school. They would be aghast if Clinton turned on them.

Wait, you're thinking, the boy problems are supposed to be limited to African Americans. Black boys are faring terribly in society. In fact, their plight is so severe that it overshadows the significant problems seen among white boys from blue-collar and lower-income white-collar families.

For the most part, the problems of white boys go unnoticed. Teachers tell the parents their sons lack motivation, leaving the parents thinking that bad parenting is at fault. Worse yet, teachers tell them not to worry, that boys will be boys, that everything will turn out well in the end. Only it doesn't.

Pennsylvania is chock-full of these families. The best place to see the problem is a public university serving their children.

Take Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, where 90 percent of the students are white, and three-fourths come from working-class families. There, men make up a mere 35 percent of the graduating class. Or Kutztown University, with a similar student population, where the gender imbalance looks the same.

In Texas, Obama missed this as an issue. He could have pointed to Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, where 70 percent of the student body is white. At SFA, fewer than four in 10 of the entering freshmen students are male. Because more men than women drop out, by graduation day, that percentage dips further: Among female students, 41 percent manage to graduate within six years of entering the university, compared with 34 percent of the men.

In Ohio, Obama could have visited Shawnee State University in Portsmouth, another university serving working-class families, 90 percent white, where two-thirds of the incoming students are first-generation college students. There, the graduating class this year will be 64 percent female.

In California, he could have pointed to the nation's best barometer of working-class America, the sprawling, 23-campus, 450,000-student California State University system, where on graduation day, two of three begowned graduates walking across the stages are female.

I've been writing about the white-boy problem for several years now. Typically, when I check on a state university serving the sons and daughters of working-class families, I find roughly the same trend. Boys are less-prepared and -motivated to go to college and, once there, are prone to wash out for those same reasons.

Given the dramatic changes in the economy, where post-high-school study is a threshold for scores of jobs that in years past required only a high school degree, this is a problem. And their parents - the voters Obama is trying so hard to reach - know it.

Now, some advice on reaching out to those voters.

First, don't try to speculate about the cause of the problem. This is a complicated, international phenomenon. In England, the problems with white males from working-class backgrounds is reported on regularly by the media. Experts disagree on both the causes and solutions.

Therefore, don't overreach. As a politician it's enough to merely acknowledge the problem, express concern and suggest that schools ought to pay more attention to these boys. Which is true.

Most important: Reassure parents that their sons' problems don't arise exclusively from bad parenting. They've heard enough of that from teachers.

The first Democrat (or Republican . . . a lot of swing voters in this group) to take those simple steps will tap into an empathy gold mine - and win more than a few votes along the way.