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Clear Creek students quiz U.S. senator

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Bennet fields questions on health care, education

By Ian Neligh

U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet fielded questions about health care and education from students Tuesday during a visit to Clear Creek High School/Middle School.

The Democrat, who was appointed to the Senate in January and faces re-election in 2010, dropped by the school and talked with a group of students for a little more than a half-hour. He then briefly sat in on a math class before visiting with the editor of the yearbook.

Bennet, the former superintendent of Denver Public Schools, began talking to the students by telling them that he had spent about half his time as a superintendent listening to students and faculty.

“So now I’m not doing that anymore. I’m doing this, and I don’t get to go to schools very often … do you guys have questions for me?” Bennet asked.

Middle-schooler Noah St. Clair of Empire was the first to pose a question.

“I was reading about your plan for health care reform in Colorado — how far have you come on this plan so far, and what are you planning on doing in the future about health care programs?” St. Clair asked.

Bennet said the health care issue poses difficult challenges from both political and policy perspectives.

“We’re in a situation where it’s become this sort of a partisan battle between the Republicans and the Democrats, which I think is not all that helpful to anybody,” Bennet said.

Bennet said families’ income levels have basically remained the same for the last 10 years, while the cost of health insurance has increased by 97 percent.

“What we’ve seen is that fewer and fewer people were able to maintain their health insurance, Bennet said. “So what we’re trying to do is change the way the system works so that it becomes less expensive and is less a burden to families across our state.”

Bennet said health care reform is worth fighting for but conceded it will be a very tough political battle.

Michelle LaGreca, a senior from Floyd Hill, changed the topic to education, asking Bennet about his views on standardized tests.

“If I were king of the world, which I’m not, what I would do is take out CSAP test scores … and all the state tests across this country,” Bennet said. “And for accountability purposes, determining whether schools are moving forward or moving backward, I would reduce the number of standards we measure at every grade level by about half.”

According to Bennet, schools are being made to cover too much too generally, and that is exhausting teachers and students.

“So I’d like to see fewer standards, fewer items tested, but more rigor so that the standards are actually benchmarked against international standards so we know that we’re really preparing you to compete in a global economy,” Bennet said.

Bennet said too much emphasis is put on how one class of students compares to the next year’s class. He said students should be compared to how they themselves did the year before.

“What you really want to know is, how did this group of sixth-graders compare to how this group did when they were fifth-graders and how they did when they were fourth-graders?” Bennet said.

He said that comparison would better inform teachers about their performance and help them do better.

Education and health care weren’t the only topics that interested the students.

Patrick Whitesel a middle-schooler from Idaho Springs, asked Bennet if he supported closing the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

“I do support closing Guantanamo Bay; I think that’s the right thing to do,” Bennet said. “We have to be extremely careful on the way we do it, and it is very, very complicated, because there are a number of different categories of people that are there.”

Bennet said some prisoners at Guantanamo still pose a threat to the United States and should be tried.

“I do support the closure because I think it is an important signal to the rest of the world about our devotion to the rule of law,” Bennet said. “Now that I have said that I think … President Obama and his administration owe the American people a much more detailed plan of what they are going to do with the detainees.”

Tessa Leake, a middle-schooler from Evergreen, asked: “If you had the choice, would you go back to your old job as superintendent?”

Bennet joked that some days he would but added that Denver Superintendent Tom Boasberg is doing a great job.

“And I really enjoy the issues that I am working on,” Bennet said. “I will say to you guys that I feel incredibly fortunate, because in my life I’ve been able to do a number of different things … (and) I recommend you guys think very broadly about the possibilities that are out there.”