Tennessee voters got their first good look at most candidates for governor during an education forum televised statewide Tuesday evening.
While few sharp differences emerged during the hour-long discussion, the exception was the issue of offering in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants, which split along party lines. Meanwhile, a question about whether the candidates sent their children to public schools provided a glimpse at their personal family choices.
Here are six things we heard during the event at Nashville’s Belmont University:
The teaching profession needs to be supported and rewarded.
Every candidate said they want to boost pay for Tennessee teachers on the heels of two years of increased allocations under outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat, offered the most direct pledge, calling higher salaries his “No. 1 priority,” while House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville, gave a more qualified pledge. “We have now given two back-to-back 4 percent pay increases to our teachers,” Harwell said. “Would I like to do more? Of course. And when the budget allows for that, I will.” On a related note, most candidates said it’s also time to revisit the state’s formula for funding K-12 education.
Credibility in TNReady needs to be restored.
Not every candidate got to answer every question, but those asked about the state’s problem-plagued standardized test spoke of the need to make improvements, not to dump it. “When the scoreboard breaks, you don’t just stop keeping score. You fix the scoreboard,” said Randy Boyd, a Republican businessman from Knoxville. Candidates also spoke of the importance of having an effective measuring stick to hold teachers accountable. “Teachers do not mind accountability; what they want is credibility in that accountability system and they want it to be useful,” Harwell said. “… We have come too far as a state to ever turn back in our accountability system.”
There was consensus that high-quality pre-kindergarten programs are a good investment.
More than two years after a Vanderbilt University study highlighted problems with Tennessee’s public pre-K programs for disadvantaged children, all of the candidates agreed that the focus now should be on lifting the quality of early childhood education, not abandoning it. “Not all pre-K is the same,” said Boyd. “We need to find programs that work well and duplicate those.” Meanwhile, Dean and House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley, said public pre-K should be expanded.
But there was disagreement over whether to provide in-state tuition for students who are undocumented immigrants.
Republicans said they would not sign legislation that would provide so-called “Dreamers” with the tuition break to attend the state’s higher education institutions, while Democrats said they would. “I’m the only person on this panel who has voted to do that, and I will vote to do that again,” Fitzhugh said of unsuccessful bills in Tennessee’s legislature during recent years. “It is cruel that we do not let these children that have lived in Tennessee all their life have in-state tuition,” he added. Republicans emphasized the letter of the law. “It doesn’t seem fair to me that we would offer something in college tuition to an immigrant that was here illegally that we wouldn’t offer to an American citizen from Georgia,” said Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County.
Education is ultimately about jobs.
All of the candidates called for investments in career and technical education that could lead to certifications and jobs. Several highlighted the importance of dual enrollment programs that allow students to earn college-level credits while still in high school. They also discussed the challenge of equipping students to finish college in a state where only one in five high school juniors meet all benchmarks for college readiness. “The key is to seek improvement in K-12,” said Dean. “If students go into college prepared, … they’re much more likely to succeed.”
The candidates’ personal experiences with public education are mixed.
Since funding and overseeing public education is one of the biggest jobs of state government, the forum’s moderators said it was fair game to ask the candidates about their own family decisions on attending public schools. Dean and Harwell said they went to public schools but sent their children to private schools. Boyd said he went to public school and opted for public and private schools for his two sons. Lee said his children have experienced a mix of homeschooling and public and private education. Fitzhugh was the only candidate who said that he and all of his children are products of public schools, and that his grandchildren attend public schools as well.
Five of seven major candidates participated in the forum sponsored by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, Belmont University, USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. Absent were U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Gallatin Republican who said she had a scheduling conflict, and Mae Beavers, a Republican and former state senator from Mt. Juliet, who bowed out after her mother died over the weekend.
Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.