NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Candidates for governor in Tennessee largely agreed on broad issues facing education during the race's first televised forum Tuesday, except for a partisan split on in-state tuition for immigrants whose parents brought or kept them in the country illegally.
The Republicans at the State Collaborative on Reforming Education forum, House Speaker Beth Harwell and businessmen Randy Boyd and Bill Lee, voiced opposition to offering the tuition break at state higher education institutions.
The push to make that change has come up just short in the Republican-led General Assembly in recent years. Term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has backed the measure, which has wide support in polls.
Harwell, a Nashville Republican, said that if paying out-of-state tuition is bad, it should also be bad for her two children who were born in America and had to pay that higher rate. Lee, a Franklin resident and construction company owner, said it's a matter of fairness. And Boyd said the students shouldn't get the in-state break "until they're lawful."
"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," Lee said.
Democratic House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh said he was the only one on stage who actually voted for the in-state tuition bill for immigrants. Former Nashville Democratic Mayor Karl Dean likewise voiced support for the change, and responded directly to Lee's comment about Georgia, drawing a rare round of applause.
"They grew up here. They went to school here. They have families here. They have friends here. And they're different than Georgians because they're Tennesseans," Dean said. "They're part of our community."
The issue remains bogged down by inaction in Washington, where a proposal to extend protection from deportation for those young immigrants instituted by former President Barack Obama has been used as a bargaining chip in a few different debates. But the issue remains unresolved.
Two other leading Republican candidates didn't attend the forum. U.S. Rep. Diane Black's campaign says she had a scheduling conflict. Former state Sen. Mae Beavers didn't participate because she attended her mother's funeral Tuesday.
The forum remained cordial, and candidates mostly touted their credentials rather than drawing contrasts.
There was wide praise for Haslam's Drive to 55 initiative, which aims to boost the rate of higher education degrees or certificates among Tennesseans from the current 39 percent to 55 percent by 2025. The program greatly expanded access to free community and technical college tuition.
Boyd was Haslam's economic development chief who helped launch the plan, and Harwell and Fitzhugh have served in the legislature while the plan has come to fruition. Boyd said his next step would be expanding technical school and community college satellite campuses on or near all high schools.
"The number one reason why kids don't go to the technical schools and they don't graduate is lack of transportation," said Boyd, a Knoxville businessman who founded a company that produces invisible fences.
All agreed teachers need to be paid better, but several took the time to praise recent funding boosts.
"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."
Lee touted how his company created its own vocational school 10 years ago. He said companies like his would be happy to work with the state on further workforce development.
Fitzhugh and Dean said they would like to see pre-kindergarten expand across the state, while the Republicans said the state needs to focus on high-caliber pre-K programs.
"The fact of the matter is, that under Gov. Haslam's leadership, we have moved pre-K where it needs to go, and I would like to see it ultimately for every single child," said Fitzhugh, a Ripley Democrat.