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Byron High School students question Franken

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U.S. Sen. Al Franken speaks to Tara Boldthen's government class at Byron High School on Thursday.

BYRON — When asked, "What do the Byron School District's awards say about the school?" U.S. Sen. Al Franken quipped, "Byron’s doing a hell of a job."

How did Franken end up going to Byron High School to talk to government law classes?

Persistence. A few years ago, social studies teacher Tara Boldthen started bringing in people in politics to talk to her government and law classes. She’s had state Sen. Dave Senjem, Secretary of State Mark Ritchey, and others speak to the class. And she’s been emailing with members of Franken’s staff, especially after the school won the Federal Department of Education's 2010 National Blue Ribbon School of Excellence Award.

On Thursday, Franken walked into a classroom at Byron High School and spoke to about 100 students, teachers and members of the news media. Only students were allowed to ask questions. Read about the discussion in the Friday print edition.

Q: What is your take on the "Occupy Wall Street" movement?

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Franken: "It’s a spontaneous movement that represents peoples’ disappointment with the disparity of wealth in this country." Franken talked about how income for the top 1 percent of the population has risen over recent years whereas the median income has gone down. Health care costs, education costs and fuel costs have all gone up.

"Middle-class life is being hollowed out. And, they’re frustrated that the government isn’t working for them."

Q: How can Byron and other Minnesota school districts continue to provide a quality education in the face of budget cuts?

Franken: The senator offered a little history lesson and talked about the "Minnesota Miracle." Minnesota at one point had the best-educated students in the United States, he said. During World War II, Minnesota had the fewest number of military recruits rejected because they couldn’t read.

At that time, state income tax revenue paid for education in Minnesota, he said. Now, a lot of the funding has been transferred to local property tax, and not everyone who pays property taxes has skin in the game. They have no kids, or they’re on a fixed income, so they’re not going to vote for a property tax increase for education, he said.

He said another factor is unfunded mandates from the federal government. Special education is an example, he said.

Franken said he is happy that during the mark-up of revisions to No Child Left Behind, there was "… a minimum of partisanship, bickering and posturing." He sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and "90 percent of us agreed with what was wrong, and 80 percent of us agreed with ways to fix it."

Q: "What do you think about the 9 percent approval rating for Congress right now?"

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Franken:"I’d say there are 9 percent of the population out there that don’t know what’s going on."

Franken also visited Byron Middle School as part of a tour through southeastern Minnesota.

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