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Posted at 3:00 PM ET, 01/24/2011

Education and the State of the Union: a perennial favorite

By Nick Anderson

This item comes from my colleague Nick Anderson, the Post's national education writer and deputy education editor.

It's a safe bet President Obama will dwell on education Tuesday night in his second State of the Union address. (His speech to Congress in February 2009 was not, technically, a SOTU.) And his goal is plain: Administration officials have made clear in recent weeks that the president will push this year for a bipartisan rewrite of the 2002 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind.

But if Obama is looking for something new to say--a new theme, a new rhetorical flourish, even a new proposal--it may be somewhat difficult. Presidents talk up education every year. Usually It offers them a respite from passages that deal with war, terrorism or polarizing domestic subjects such as taxes and health care. Here is a review of what's been said on the subject in annual presidential speeches since 2000.

2000: President Clinton talks up Internet connections in schools, charter school expansion, federal aid to lower class size and college affordability.

"With the smallest Federal work force in 40 years, we turned record deficits into record surpluses and doubled our investment in education. .... To 21st century America, let us pledge these things: Every child will begin school ready to learn and graduate ready to succeed.

"First and foremost, we need a 21st century revolution in education, guided by our faith that every single child can learn. Because education is more important than ever, more than ever the key to our children's future, we must make sure all our children have that key. That means quality preschool and after-school, the best trained teachers in the classroom, and college opportunities for all our children.

"For 7 years now, we've worked hard to improve our schools, with opportunity and responsibility, investing more but demanding more in turn. Reading, math, college entrance scores are up. Some of the most impressive gains are in schools in very poor neighborhoods.

"But all successful schools have followed the same proven formula: higher standards, more accountability, and extra help so children who need it can get it to reach those standards. I have sent Congress a reform plan based on that formula. It holds states and school districts accountable for progress and rewards them for results. Each year, our National Government invests more than $15 billion in our schools. It is time to support what works and stop supporting what doesn't.

"Now, as we demand more from our schools, we should also invest more in our schools. Let's double our investment to help States and districts turn around their worst performing schools or shut them down. Let's double our investments in after-school and summer school programs, which boost achievement and keep people off the streets and out of trouble. If we do this, we can give every single child in every failing school in America--everyone--the chance to meet high standards.

"Since 1993, we've nearly doubled our investment in Head Start and improved its quality. Tonight I ask you for another $1 billion for Head Start, the largest increase in the history of the program.

"We know that children learn best in smaller classes with good teachers. For two years in a row, Congress has supported my plan to hire 100,000 new qualified teachers to lower class size in the early grades. I thank you for that, and I ask you to make it three in a row. And to make sure all teachers know the subjects they teach, tonight I propose a new teacher quality initiative, to recruit more talented people into the classroom, reward good teachers for staying there, and give all teachers the training they need.

"We know charter schools provide real public school choice. When I became President, there was just one independent public charter school in all America. Today, thanks to you, there are 1,700. I ask you now to help us meet our goal of 3,000 charter schools by next year.

"We know we must connect all our classrooms to the Internet, and we're getting there. In 1994, only 3 percent of our classrooms were connected. Today, with the help of the Vice President's E-rate program, more than half of them are, and 90 percent of our schools have at least one Internet connection. But we cannot finish the job when a third of all our schools are in serious disrepair. Many of them have walls and wires so old, they're too old for the Internet. So tonight I propose to help 5,000 schools a year make immediate and urgent repairs and, again, to help build or modernize 6,000 more, to get students out of trailers and into high-tech classrooms.

"I ask all of you to help me double our bipartisan GEAR UP program, which provides mentors for disadvantaged young people. If we double it, we can provide mentors for 1.4 million of them. Let's also offer these kids from disadvantaged backgrounds the same chance to take the same college test-prep courses wealthier students use to boost their test scores.

"To make the American dream achievable for all, we must make college affordable for all. For seven years, on a bipartisan basis, we have taken action toward that goal: larger Pell grants, more affordable student loans, education IRA's, and our HOPE scholarships, which have already benefited 5 million young people.

"Now, 67 percent of high school graduates are going on to college. That's up 10 percent since 1993. Yet millions of families still strain to pay college tuition. They need help. So I propose a landmark $30 billion college opportunity tax cut, a middle class tax deduction for up to $10,000 in college tuition costs. The previous actions of this Congress have already made two years of college affordable for all. It's time to make four years of college affordable for all. If we take all these steps, we'll move a long way toward making sure every child starts school ready to learn and graduates ready to succeed.....

"Finally tonight, I propose the largest ever investment in our civil rights laws for enforcement, because no American should be subjected to discrimination in finding a home, getting a job, going to school, or securing a loan."

2001: President Bush kicks off his campaign for No Child Left Behind. Here begins the federal policy of mandatory testing every year in reading and math in grades three through eight.

"The highest percentage increase in our budget should go to our children's education. Education is my top priority.

"Education is my top priority, and by supporting this budget, you will make it yours as well. Reading is the foundation of all learning, so during the next five years, we triple spending, adding $5 billion to help every child in America learn to read. Values are important, so we've tripled funding for character education to teach our children not only reading and writing, but right from wrong.

"We've increased funding to train and recruit teachers, because we know a good education starts with a good teacher. And I have a wonderful partner in this effort. I like teachers so much I married one.

"Laura has begun a new effort to recruit Americans to the profession that will shape our future: teaching. She will travel across America to promote sound teaching practices and early reading skills in our schools and in programs such as Head Start.

"When it comes to our schools, dollars alone do not always make the difference. Funding is important and so is reform, so we must tie funding to higher standards and accountability, for results.

"I believe in local control of schools. We should not and we will not run public schools from Washington, D.C.

"Yet when the federal government spends tax dollars, we must insist on results. Children should be tested on basic reading and math skills every year between grades three and eight. Measuring is the only way to know whether all our children are learning. And I want to know, because I refuse to leave any child behind in America.

"Critics of testing contend it distracts from learning. They talk about 'teaching to the test.' But let's put that logic to the test. If you test a child on basic math and reading skills, and you are 'teaching to the test,' you are teaching math and reading. And that's the whole idea.

"As standards rise, local schools will need more flexibility to meet them. So we must streamline the dozens of federal education programs into five and let states spend money in those categories as they see fit.

"Schools will be given a reasonable chance to improve and the support to do so. Yet if they don't, if they continue to fail, we must give parents and students different options: a better public school, a private school, tutoring or a charter school.

"In the end, every child in a bad situation must be given a better choice, because when it comes to our children, failure is simply not an option."

2002: Bush celebrates enactment of No Child Left Behind three weeks after signing it into law.

"Good jobs begin with good schools, and here we've made a fine start. Republicans and Democrats worked together to achieve historic education reform so that no child is left behind. I was proud to work with members of both parties: Chairman John Boehner and Congressman George Miller; Senator Judd Gregg. And I was so proud of our work, I even had nice things to say about my friend Ted Kennedy. I know the folks at the Crawford coffee shop couldn't believe I'd say such a thing---but our work on this bill shows what is possible if we set aside posturing and focus on results.

"There is more to do. We need to prepare our children to read and succeed in school with improved Head Start and early childhood development programs. We must upgrade our teacher colleges and teacher training and launch a major recruiting drive with a great goal for America, a quality teacher in every classroom."

2003: Bush briefly plugs his signature education reform.

"To lift the standards of our public schools, we achieved historic education reform, which must now be carried out in every school and in every classroom so that every child in America can read and learn and succeed in life."

2004: Bush, up for reelection, touts the law again. And he takes a swipe at a favorite presidential enemy: The Status Quo. Note his support for science-math education and for Pell grants for low-income college students.

"All skills begin with the basics of reading and math, which are supposed to be learned in the early grades of our schools. Yet for too long, for too many children, those skills were never mastered. By passing the No Child Left Behind Act, you have made the expectation of literacy the law of our country. We're providing more funding for our schools, a 36-percent increase since 2001. We're requiring higher standards. We are regularly testing every child on the fundamentals. We are reporting results to parents and making sure they have better options when schools are not performing. We are making progress toward excellence for every child in America.

"But the status quo always has defenders. Some want to undermine the No Child Left Behind Act by weakening standards and accountability. Yet the results we require are really a matter of common sense: We expect third graders to read and do math at the third grade level, and that's not asking too much. Testing is the only way to identify and help students who are falling behind. This Nation will not go back to the days of simply shuffling children along from grade to grade without them learning the basics. I refuse to give up on any child, and the No Child Left Behind Act is opening the door of opportunity to all of America's children.

"At the same time, we must ensure that older students and adults can gain the skills they need to find work now. Many of the fastest growing occupations require strong math and science preparation and training beyond the high school level. So tonight, I propose a series of measures called Jobs for the 21st Century. This program will provide extra help to middle and high school students who fall behind in reading and math, expand advanced placement programs in low-income schools, invite math and science professionals from the private sector to teach part-time in our high schools.

"I propose larger Pell grants for students who prepare for college with demanding courses in high school. I propose increasing our support for America's fine community colleges, so they can--I do so, so they can train workers for industries that are creating the most new jobs. By all these actions, we'll help more and more Americans to join in the growing prosperity of our country."

2005: Bush kicks off his second term with a push for better high school results. Not much happened on that front. Again, though, he plugs Pell grants.

"To make our economy stronger and more dynamic, we must prepare a rising generation to fill the jobs of the 21st century. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, standards are higher, test scores are on the rise, and we're closing the achievement gap for minority students. Now we must demand better results from our high schools, so every high school diploma is a ticket to success. We will help an additional 200,000 workers to get training for a better career by reforming our job training system and strengthening America's community colleges. And we'll make it easier for Americans to afford a college education by increasing the size of Pell grants."

2006: Bush launches a math and science education initiative. Such points are often raised when presidents talk about global competition.

"And to keep America competitive, one commitment is necessary above all: We must continue to lead the world in human talent and creativity. Our greatest advantage in the world has always been our educated, hard-working, ambitious people. And we're going to keep that edge. Tonight I announce an American Competitiveness Initiative, to encourage innovation throughout our economy and to give our Nation's children a firm grounding in math and science. ....

"We need to encourage children to take more math and science, and to make sure those courses are rigorous enough to compete with other nations. We've made a good start in the early grades with the No Child Left Behind Act, which is raising standards and lifting test scores across our country. Tonight I propose to train 70,000 high school teachers to lead advanced-placement courses in math and science, bring 30,000 math and science professionals to teach in classrooms, and give early help to students who struggle with math, so they have a better chance at good, high-wage jobs. If we ensure that America's children succeed in life, they will ensure that America succeeds in the world.

"Preparing our Nation to compete in the world is a goal that all of us can share. I urge you to support the American Competitiveness Initiative, and together we will show the world what the American people can achieve."

2007: Bush asks for a rewrite of No Child Left Behind. He didn't get one.

"Spreading opportunity and hope in America also requires public schools that give children the knowledge and character they need in life. Five years ago, we rose above partisan differences to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, preserving local control, raising standards, and holding those schools accountable for results. And because we acted, students are performing better in reading and math, and minority students are closing the achievement gap.

"Now the task is to build on this success, without watering down standards, without taking control from local communities, and without backsliding and calling it reform. We can lift student achievement even higher by giving local leaders flexibility to turn around failing schools, and by giving families with children stuck in failing schools the right to choose someplace better. We must increase funds for students who struggle, and make sure these children get the special help they need. And we can make sure our children are prepared for the jobs of the future, and our country is more competitive, by strengthening math and science skills. The No Child Left Behind Act has worked for America's children, and I ask Congress to reauthorize this good law."

2008: Bush again seeks NCLB rewrite. And he pushes for something resembling vouchers to help children in failing public schools switch to private schools. Congress approved neither.

"On education, we must trust students to learn if given the chance and empower parents to demand results from our schools. In neighborhoods across our country, there are boys and girls with dreams, and a decent education is their only hope of achieving them. Six years ago, we came together to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, and today no one can deny its results. Last year, fourth and eighth graders achieved the highest math scores on record. Reading scores are on the rise. And African American and Hispanic students posted all-time highs. Now we must work together to increase accountability, add flexibility for states and districts, reduce the number of high school dropouts, and provide extra help for struggling schools.

"Members of Congress, the No Child Left Behind Act is a bipartisan achievement. It is succeeding. And we owe it to America's children, their parents, and their teachers to strengthen this good law.

"We must also do more to help children when their schools do not measure up. Thanks to the D.C. Opportunity Scholarships you approved, more than 2,600 of the poorest children in our Nation's capital have found new hope at a faith-based or other nonpublic school. Sadly, these schools are disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America's inner cities. So I will convene a White House summit aimed at strengthening these lifelines of learning. And to open the doors of these schools to more children, I ask you to support a new $300 million program called Pell Grants for Kids. We have seen how Pell Grants help low-income college students realize their full potential. Together, we have expanded the size and reach of these grants. Now let's apply that same spirit to help liberate poor children trapped in failing public schools."

2009: Obama, weeks after inauguration, talks at length about education. He notes that the economic stimulus law will save teacher jobs. He seeks reform, including teacher performance pay, higher standards and more charter schools. He also expresses solidarity with a South Carolina student who wants a better school.

"Now is the time to jumpstart job creation, re-start lending, and invest in areas like energy, health care, and education that will grow our economy, even as we make hard choices to bring our deficit down. .....The budget I submit will invest in the three areas that are absolutely critical to our economic future: energy, health care, and education......

"The third challenge we must address is the urgent need to expand the promise of education in America.

"In a global economy where the most valuable skill you can sell is your knowledge, a good education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity--it is a prerequisite.

"Right now, three-quarters of the fastest-growing occupations require more than a high school diploma. And yet, just over half of our citizens have that level of education. We have one of the highest high school dropout rates of any industrialized nation. And half of the students who begin college never finish.

"This is a prescription for economic decline, because we know the countries that out-teach us today will out-compete us tomorrow. That is why it will be the goal of this Administration to ensure that every child has access to a complete and competitive education--from the day they are born to the day they begin a career.

"Already, we have made an historic investment in education through the economic recovery plan. We have dramatically expanded early childhood education and will continue to improve its quality, because we know that the most formative learning comes in those first years of life. We have made college affordable for nearly seven million more students. And we have provided the resources necessary to prevent painful cuts and teacher layoffs that would set back our children's progress.

"But we know that our schools don't just need more resources. They need more reform. That is why this budget creates new incentives for teacher performance; pathways for advancement, and rewards for success. We'll invest in innovative programs that are already helping schools meet high standards and close achievement gaps. And we will expand our commitment to charter schools.

"It is our responsibility as lawmakers and educators to make this system work. But it is the responsibility of every citizen to participate in it. And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least 1 year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship. But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country--and this country needs and values the talents of every American. That is why we will provide the support necessary for you to complete college and meet a new goal: by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

"I know that the price of tuition is higher than ever, which is why if you are willing to volunteer in your neighborhood or give back to your community or serve your country, we will make sure that you can afford a higher education. And to encourage a renewed spirit of national service for this and future generations, I ask this Congress to send me the bipartisan legislation that bears the name of Senator Orrin Hatch as well as an American who has never stopped asking what he can do for his country--Senator Edward Kennedy.

"These education policies will open the doors of opportunity for our children. But it is up to us to ensure they, walk through them. In the end, there is no program or policy that can substitute for a mother or father who will attend those parent/teacher conferences, or help with homework after dinner, or turn off the TV, put away the video games, and read to their child. I speak to you not just as a President, but as a father when I say that responsibility for our children's education must begin at home.....

"In this budget, we will end education programs that don't work.....

"And I think about Ty'Sheoma Bethea, the young girl from that school I visited in Dillon, South Carolina--a place where the ceilings leak, the paint peels off the walls, and they have to stop teaching six times a day because the train barrels by their classroom. She has been told that her school is hopeless, but the other day after class she went to the public library and typed up a letter to the people sitting in this room. She even asked her principal for the money to buy a stamp. The letter asks us for help, and says, `We are just students trying to become lawyers, doctors, congressmen like yourself and one day president, so we can make a change to not just the state of South Carolina but also the world. We are not quitters.''

2010: Obama talks about revising NCLB, a.k.a. the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (which still hasn't happened). Like Bush, he jabs at the hated Status Quo. But he also talks at length about college affordability; within months he will obtain student loan reforms.

"Fourth, we need to invest in the skills and education of our people.

"Now, this year, we've broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. And the idea here is simple: instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform--reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to the inner cities. In the 21st century, the best anti-poverty program around is a world-class education. And in this country, the success of our children cannot depend more on where they live than on their potential.

"When we renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, we will work with Congress to expand these reforms to all 50 States. Still, in this economy, a high school diploma no longer guarantees a good job. That's why I urge the Senate to follow the House and pass a bill that will revitalize our community colleges, which is a career pathway to the children of so many working families. To make college more affordable, this bill will finally end the unwarranted taxpayer subsidies that go to banks for student loans. Instead, let's take that money and give families a $10,000 tax credit for 4 years of college and increase Pell Grants. And let's tell another 1 million students that, when they graduate, they will be required to pay only 10 percent of their income on student loans, and all of their debt will be forgiven after 20 years--and forgiven after 10 years if they choose a career in public service. Because in the United States of America, no one should go broke because they chose to go to college. And by the way, it's time for colleges and universities to get serious about cutting their own costs--because they, too, have a responsibility to help solve this problem."

If you've read this far, you qualify as a real education wonk. Let us know what you think of what Obama says on education Tuesday night. Will it be rehash or reform? Email Or email The Answer Sheet at

By Nick Anderson  | January 24, 2011; 3:00 PM ET
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Why don't people recognize that the same tune (only with a few variations) has been played for a long time and that maybe it is the wrong tune rather than bad teachers that is the problem?

Bet the President gives us more of the same.

Posted by: clarkd1 | January 24, 2011 7:29 PM | Report abuse

I tired of the cheerleading program years back. It means little and solves less. People today know more about the state of the union than ever before, and with this President even more.

The idea that more money is needed is old. 1+1=2 takes no more to teach than ever, save salary/facility costs. It doesn't take a computer, in fact the computer is a surrogate teacher when used in this capacity. That said, why not give computers to day care and let the PreK and K teachers apply for other positions in the school.

To lament we need computer connections is wasteful spending. Variations in software make lifespans for computers much shorter than a book. Power usage for hardware drives cost upward while a book hasn't used a single amp of electricity after publishing and delivery to the user.

When someone declares a move back to basics I will listen. Until then, it is simply noise while education flounders.

Posted by: jbeeler | January 24, 2011 8:37 PM | Report abuse

Agree completely, Jbeeler. I will not tune in to hear Obama's speech. I just don't think anything will change under him, or anyone else.

Posted by: peonteacher | January 24, 2011 10:32 PM | Report abuse

I was telling a teacher friend last night that I regretted walking the streets for President Obama.
Recently, Dr. Stephen Krasen made this prediction - When 100,000 people are on Ms. Susan Ohanian's mailing list, Duncan/Gates will be defeated.
Please go to Ms. Ohanian's web page and sign up.

Posted by: tutucker | January 24, 2011 11:08 PM | Report abuse

The biggest threat to American preeminence in the 21st century draws its power from the past. Continued societal inequities and stagnant poverty rates are our Achilles' heel and will remain so until we reexamine tax, housing, and economic policies which perpetuate and punish the lower class.

Barriers erected long ago to sustain racial and class divides must be acknowledged and then dismantled if our national ambitions are to be met. How ironic that it is the poor who hold so much of our future prosperity in their hands.

Today, vaunted reformers claim to have discovered the remedy for all our woes. Through privatized charter schools, impotent teacher unions, rigid standardized testing, and an assembly line of interchangeable new teachers, America can lift its poor without examining any of its other policies and privileges.

It is an intoxicating premise which will no doubt make its appearance in yet another State of the Union address. The lifting of the children of the poor without addressing the causes and ramifications of the persistent poverty afflicting their parents (and the self-perpetuating behaviors on everyone's part, including the poor) is a quick fix no adept politician could possibly ignore.

Already, billionaire philanthropists eagerly embrace this "bloodless revolution." We will have the "Great Society" without all the mess.

For more on my experiences teaching in light (or in spite) of all this, please visit my blog at

Posted by: dcproud1 | January 24, 2011 11:29 PM | Report abuse

I haven't given up on President Obama yet, mainly because he is too politically astute to take a stand against the nation's educators.

Yesterday, Oprah was interviewed by Piers Morgan on CNN. During the interview Oprah made a point of saying she was proud of her accomplishments, but "I wanted to be a really good fourth grade teacher and I would have been just as proud of that." (not exact words) She made several more comments about how "I see myself primarily as a teacher" and "I want to teach." Perhaps I was reading into it, but I felt her comments were directed at the teachers who were so hurt by her blind support of Superwoman.

My point is that I wouldn't be surprised if we hear similar comments from President Obama on Tuesday. He's just too intelligent and politically savvy to take a stand against teachers. We vote and there are millions of us.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 25, 2011 12:10 AM | Report abuse

It is fantastic time to refinance home mortgage. As Clark Howard says it is very tough to find these low rates for long time. Search online for 123 Mortgage Refi they found me THE lowest possible rate.

Posted by: gloverjody | January 25, 2011 5:37 AM | Report abuse

The sad reality of this year's state of the union is that education is simply not a priority of our country at this time.

Unemployment, foreclosures, bankruptcies, credit card debt, delinquent state tax obligations, outsourcing jobs, health care, etc., etc., continue to dominate the horizon. It's simply a fact of life.

Re-authorizing NCLB is low on the list of our federal priorities. Worse, this is not about to change anytime in the near future.

When people have problems housing and feeding their families and paying their bills, the last thing on their minds is re-writing an unpopular federal education initiative. Obama is intelligent enough to be able to realize this.

No, jobs and reducing the country's $14 trillion debt are the country's priorities for 2011. Plain and simple, our public schools do not warrant a place at the table for the year to come.

Posted by: phoss1 | January 25, 2011 8:05 AM | Report abuse

He certainly complimented teachers' work and their role and supported high respect for them. But, I know to the disappointment of some people on this blogue, he committed a grave sin by indicating we will not tolerate the "bad." As rational and sensible as that is, I know it must seem like a bitter pill for the special interests who put teachers at the center of their education universe.

He was generally supportive of ed programs, and said, in various ways what a high priority ed has.

My biggest problem with his budget ideas is that he still puts a fence around the collossal waste in Defense and Homeland Security, where the service members and employees and many contractors believe they are entitled to funding and jobs that go with it. They generally fend off and obstruct attempts to control the obvious waste and taxpayer abuse.

Nothing new, but, with this, Barack Obama nearly completes his conversion to being a liberal Republican.

Posted by: axolotl | January 26, 2011 10:57 AM | Report abuse

I don't care who or which party, this "education is important" rhetoric has been in speech after speech...year after year. When I started teaching in was all about improving the public schools, paying teachers better, decreasing class sizes, parental involvement...and yadda, yadda, yadda.

It's 40 years later and where are we? Many would argue...worse off than 40 years ago.

Education is only important during elections and in speeches to get elected...or during budget time...then, well, it's not so falls further down the list of priorities.

We know what's wrong, but like so many other things, no one has the nerve to really take the necessary steps to make improvements.

And those who speak up and know what needs to be done are discredited, while those who are clueless, but well-connected, are considered "reformers."

Posted by: ilcn | January 26, 2011 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Oct. 2010, The US Dept. of Ed awarded Corporation for Public Broadcasting $80 million to creat video games for children under age 10..... games...... US Dept. of Ed. feels this is the best way to spend $80 million dollars in overhauling the Nations educations system .... because children need more video games.

Posted by: concernedtaxpayer35 | January 26, 2011 4:10 PM | Report abuse

Oct. 2010 the US Dept. of Ed awarded Corporation for Public Broadcasting $80 million to create video games for children under age 10 ..... games ..... US Dept. of Ed feels this is the best way to overhaul the Nations education system by creating video games because children need more video games.

Posted by: concernedtaxpayer35 | January 26, 2011 4:13 PM | Report abuse

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