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Updated: Cloquet students meet Congressman Cravaack

Cloquet High School student Sara Bush took the opportunity last Thursday morning to ask U.S. Rep. Chip Cravaack why he voted for a bill that would take away $26 million in funding from the TRiO programs, which help students like her go to college.

"There are a lot of other programs associated with that," he told the senior, referring to the federal program which is designed to help low-income, minority and first-generation students go to college. "I understand it's not going to be easy. But right now we've got $14.3 trillion in debt. If we don't do something, here's what's going to happen to TRiO programs: We won't have a TRiO program. We'll be broke."

Rep. Cravaack visited with two Cloquet High School government classes Thursday morning as he traveled around Minnesota's Eighth District during the spring recess for Congress. The last time he'd visited the local high school was before the November 2010 election, when he defeated long-time incumbent Rep. Jim Oberstar.

"I remember that was right before a debate," Cravaack said. "You helped me prepare for that."

American Government teacher Chris Swanson had invited Cravaack to return at that time - win or lose - and had been in touch with his staff in North Branch and Washington to make it happen. He scheduled the visit to coincide with the completion of the class's unit on the Congress.

"We researched the Congressman's background, position statements, and voting record," Swanson said in an e-mail to the Pine Journal. "Only days before the visit, we completed a simulation of the law-making process with all its pitfalls and potential, something [Rep. Cravaack] is clearly a little frustrated with.  If anything, our study of the Congress's history and function overprepared our students for his visit."

While the freshman Representative focused most of his comments on his own background and on the federal deficit - noting that as the primary reason he got involved in politics - the students asked an array of questions.

"What do you like to do in your free time?" Annabel Morrisroe asked.

"I don't have free time," the Congressman replied, before launching into a description of his typical day at the Capitol, when he arrives at his office around 7 a.m. and tries to leave by 11 p.m.

Marcos Hunt, who is going into the Marine Corps after he graduates, wanted to know what Congress was doing to make healthcare more affordable for active military and veterans.

"Keeping our promises," Cravaack told the senior, noting that it is a mantra on Capitol Hill that the government should always keep its promises to veterans.

Danielle Prince also asked about general cuts to education during the earlier government class session.

"I was flabbergasted when I went to Washington D.C. and I see these massive Department of Education buildings, huge campuses," Cravaack told both classes in response to the questions from Price and Bush. "The average salary in the Department of Education is $103,000. What's happening is, the money that should be going to our kids in the classroom, is heading up to Washington D.C. and our very large federal government. My feeling is we should shrink the Department of Education and make sure that money that's going to Washington D.C. and gets down to our teachers and classrooms."

He didn't explain how the money would be shifted to local schools, and Cloquet Superintendent Ken Scarbrough said he was unaware of any legislation that would "actually shift that Washington DC infrastructure money to the schools or states."

Approximately 12 percent of the Cloquet School District's revenue comes from the federal government, Scarbrough said. Duluth Director of Business Services Bill Hanson said about 9 percent of the Duluth schools budget comes from the federal government.

Bush - who has been accepted to study pre-medicine at the College of St. Scholastica thanks, in part, to TRiO funds - didn't completely let Cravaack off the hook for his TRiO vote.

"This also gives up the opportunity for 90,000 people to go to college," she pointed out.

Cravaack responded with a story of how his wife came from a family with little money, and worked three jobs to put herself through school twice: first for her undergraduate degree and then for her Master's degree.

"You can work and you can work hard," he told her. "When you get your degree, you can be very proud because you worked harder than some of the other people to get that degree."

Swanson said he had a follow-up discussion on Cravaack's visit Tuesday in class, because school was not in session Friday or Monday due to the Easter break.

"It was interesting to see that students still had questions about budget cuts at the Federal level, frustration with what they perceive as non-answers to a couple of their questions, and an overall sense that the honeymoon period for the Congressman is coming to a close," Swanson said. "They want to see things, big things, get done, but they also realize he's only one small part of half of a third of our government.

"On his encouragement to work hard to pay for school," Swanson continued, "students have wondered aloud about the increasing cost of college tuition and how static wages are for entry-level jobs, or about how the Congressman was able to go to the Naval Academy, an opportunity for only the most select students among us."

Swanson said he would be happy to have any candidate visit his classes to discuss their candidacy and the issues - and equally happy to have a return trip from the Eighth District Congressman.

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