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Wyden challenges students on graduation rates

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Urges them at Clackamas HS town hall to suggest ideas for using federal aid.


TRIBUNE PHOTO: PETER WONG - U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden talked with dozens of students and others during a town hall meeting in Clackamas.U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden found it slow going at his town hall meeting Thursday at Clackamas High School until he touched on a couple of issues affecting students directly.

“It should be unacceptable to every one of us that we have the fourth lowest graduation rate in the United States,” the Oregon Democrat said.

“I would like to inspire students and ask all of you to give me your ideas on what you would be doing — if you were in my shoes — to raise those graduation rates.”

According to a national compilation released last fall, Oregon ranked above only Alaska, Nevada and New Mexico in four-year high school graduation rates in 2014. Oregon’s statewide rate was 72 percent; Clackamas High School was at 90 percent, and will be higher when the 2015 rates are released.

“We have increased every single year and we have done a good job,” Principal Christine Garcia said after the meeting. “We are working hard to reach the less than 10 percent who do not graduate on time.”

Wyden says his comments are aimed at generating student ideas that can tap into extra aid for schools he has included in the new federal education law. Congress passed it as a successor to the 2002 law known as No Child Left Behind, which penalized schools for failure to make academic progress.

Such aid can pay for services such as mentors, one-on-one counseling and work-school programs — and also can benefit a subset of students within a high school.

“We are so proud of areas where we are first, such as protection of our natural treasures,” Wyden said. “But being fourth from the bottom in graduation rates has real implications for our students and our ability to grow our economy.”

Wyden’s challenge also broke loose a flood of questions from students, who shared time with the public at the meeting in the high school auditorium. Until then, they were largely silent.

Wyden said afterward he wasn’t surprised by the initial dearth of questions.

“At their age, if I came to a meeting like this, I’d probably would not have done much, either,” he said.

Wyden also spoke about college costs, a topic of concern to many of the students who soon will be college-bound.

When he was a student in the 1960s, Wyden said, “college was a big expense, but it did not dominate your whole life. It was more like buying a car. It was big — you might have to borrow a little but from your parents — but it didn’t hang over you for years or decades.”

Congress just made permanent a tax credit for college tuition, subtracted directly from taxes owed, that Wyden sponsored in the federal tax code several years ago.

Wyden also is promoting other measures.

One proposal, with fellow Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, would give federal incentives to states that freeze or reduce tuition rates. The other proposal, with Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, would require colleges to post graduation rates, projected debt levels and future earnings. The bill is known as “right to know before you go.”

Asked by another student about whether partisanship gets in the way, Wyden said nothing passes the Senate without at least 60 votes because of the threat of filibusters – and Republicans have 54 votes, Democrats and two independents who side with them, 46 votes.

“You have not heard me mention that this is a Democratic solution or that is a Republican solution,” Wyden said. “You have heard me talk about how we are bringing people together — or you don’t get anything done.”

Wyden was elected to the Senate 20 years ago this month. He is up for re-election this year. He conducts town hall meetings in every one of Oregon's 36 counties annually; Thursday’s was his 754th since he became a senator.

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U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., responded to a range of questions posed to him during and after a town hall meeting Thursday at Clackamas High School. Among the issues:

Standoff, now in its sixth day, at Malheur Wildlife Refuge near Burns: “My first priority is getting this resolved peacefully. My second priority is to lower the (political) temperature in the area… I do think the frustration surrounding the economy in rural areas is very understandable. I am interested in solutions, not standoffs.”

President Barack Obama’s new executive orders on federal firearms regulation: He wants to learn more about the details, particularly as they affect gun dealers, but said guns should not be in the hands of people on various federal watch lists or those convicted of domestic violence.

“What it really comes down to is whether we have a sense of urgency to get some of these practical steps to be taken. I want it understood that business as usual is not acceptable.”

North Korea’s unverified claim that it has tested a hydrogen bomb: He is awaiting a briefing of the Senate Intelligence Committee before saying much. “Certainly the Chinese are going to be concerned about what happens, because if there are problems in North Korea, they are likely to see lots of people run to their country.”

Whether Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles should draw renewed international sanctions, even though Iran’s recent transfer of uranium-fuel stockpiles show it is complying with its agreement to curb nuclear-weapons development: The jury is out on the missiles. “But had the agreement gone down, the Iranians would have gotten that money ($100 billion in frozen assets) for nothing. This way, at least we have some measure of oversight for the next 15 years about what they are doing.”

— Peter Wong