Johnson, Walz propose different routes on education

Republican Jeff Johnson, middle, speaks with debate moderator Nick Halter while Tim Walz claps at the introduction. Brian Bakst | MPR News

Republican Jeff Johnson and DFLer Tim Walz challenged each other’s approach to education during a Minnesota governor’s race forum Wednesday focused on developing the next-generation of workers amid a feared labor shortage.

The debate, which took place during the TwinWest Talent Symposium, was the first since the release of a pair of independent polls showing Walz in front of Johnson.

The two were asked about the state's nagging achievement gap between white students and students of color. Johnson called it a significant moral issue that has gone unsolved for too long.

“We wring our hands about it and we say it’s terrible, but nobody changes anything," Johnson said. "And that has to change because we are failing thousands of kids every single year.”

The Hennepin County commissioner said parents deserve more chances to use public resources to send their children to private schools. Or he said they should be able to force restructuring of their public schools and to weed out subpar teachers.

Walz, a former teacher, took issue with Johnson's proposals.

“You’ve got children 15 percent who are homeless, many of whom are living in cars or tent cities," Walz said.  And you’re going to give them a scholarship or a voucher where they don’t have transportation, they don’t have housing."

Walz said public schools are better equipped to connect children with other public services -- from health care to housing programs -- that can improve their quality of life and learning capacity. He said investing in all of those programs will save in the long run.

Johnson wasn’t buying it.

“Empowering parents is not going to solve the problem alone, but it will help for those parents who want something different," Johnson said. "The answer always is, ‘We need to spend a little more money or maybe a lot more money.’ That hasn’t worked.”

The candidates agreed that post-secondary education was in need of an update. Each said he would promote vocational programs and two-year degrees to better match up students with employers searching for trained welders, electricians and trades professionals.

Walz used his 11-year-old son as an example.

“If Gus comes home and tells me he wants to be an electrician, it’ll be the happiest day of my life," Walz said. "Because I know there’s employability, I know there’s a skill set, I know it’s where his intelligence lies.”

Johnson referenced his high-school aged son. He said there shouldn’t be a social stigma if he opts against a four-year degree.

“I know if he chooses something other than a four-year college, which is a possibility for him, we’re going to have a bunch of people in my community who will feel sorry for me as a parent, which just makes my heart sink," Johnson said.

The debate also highlighted the opposite views of the nominees on whether the gas tax should go up to build and maintain roads.

Johnson said it's not an option for him. Walz said he’s willing to bump the fuel tax up to avoid taking the money from other programs or letting infrastructure crumble.

He said local dollars are already being pulled in to make road upgrades and said poor highways cost motorists in businesses in other ways, including time lost in congestion.

Walz said he's open to an increase in the dedicated tax "to have an honest conversation about it. It’s about the targeted use of it and having honest budgeting that makes a difference.”

Johnson said Minnesotans already pay enough.

“It’s not just going to be the gas tax, folks. And you’ve said you are open to lots of other tax increases. I think we know what that means," Johnson said. "And that is a very different than where I believe we need to go."

Johnson and Walz are lining up additional debates as the November 6th election draws near. People who have already made up their minds can cast ballots starting this Friday.

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