IN Focus: Candidates for governor debate education, economy

INDIANAPOLIS – Not even 24 hours after Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton faced-off in their first national TV debate, the three candidates looking to be Indiana’s next governor gathered for a much calmer, more civil and non-confrontational debate in Indianapolis.

“Had we gone out there and gone after each other it would have been, ‘Well we thought you guys were all about civility,’” John Gregg said after the debate, the Democratic candidate for governor. “I think Hoosiers ought to take a deep sigh and breathe and say ‘Wow our candidates running for office practice what they preach.’”

Gregg debated alongside Republican Eric Holcomb and Libertarian Rex Bell.

The first official debate, organized by the Indiana Debate Commission, focused on education. High school students, teachers and administrators filled the seats at Lawrence North High School.

Students helped draft and ask the question alongside moderator Laura Albright, a political science professor at the University of Indianapolis.

The first question highlighted a major concern for Hoosier students and parents about what will happen to the problem-ridden ISTEP test and what plans the candidates have in place to replace it.

“It’s going away,” Holcomb said, the current lieutenant governor. “We need to replace it with a test that is fair and accurate, and as was stated, we get results back quicker, it’s graded here, now, fast.”

Gregg, the former Indiana House speaker, said the ISTEP test has forced teachers to ‘teach to the test.’

“I think it is a flawed test,” Gregg said. “I’m all for accountability, but I think we need to have a better way where you take the test and you get feedback much quicker.”

A state committee is currently working on a set of recommendations to replace ISTEP.

Bell proposed an approach that could result in hundreds of different standardized tests statewide.

“What we would like to see happen is what is happening now,” he said. “The local schools are developing their own way of determining the test and the outcomes, and certainly we have always been in favor of returning more local control to the parents and teachers and school boards.”

Polling indicates the race is a tight match between Holcomb and Gregg.

“It’s an uphill battle,” Bell acknowledged after the debate.

The candidates were also asked by a high school sophomore whether undocumented students living in Indiana should be able to receive in-state tuition. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Indiana is one of three states that prohibit undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition.

“I’ve had people come up to me and said they’ve spent their lives, they don’t remember living anywhere else than the state of Indiana, and yet they are not a legal citizen,” Gregg said. “And this is something the legislature needs to grapple with.”

Holcomb said the issue hasn’t received traction in the General Assembly.

“I will take it as it comes,” Holcomb said after the debate. “I would put this in the category of I don’t focus too much on things that have zero probability of moving forward. And I’ve not heard any discussion of reviving this.”

Two more debates are scheduled before Election Day on Oct. 3 at the University of Indianapolis, dealing with the economy, and Oct. 25 at the University of Southern Indiana in Evansville.