NASHVILLE, Tennessee–The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) Gubernatorial Forum on Education held at Belmont University’s Curb Center on Tuesday turned out to be a slow-moving draw punctuated by partisan differences between the three Republicans and two Democrats in attendance over in-state-tuition for illegals.
Each of the five participating candidates made their points and none hurt themselves, for the most part restating positions they had staked out in pre-forum interviews with the Professional Educators of Tennessee.
Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell (R-Nashville), Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd, and Williamson County businessman Bill Lee were the three Republican gubernatorial candidates in attendance. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and Tennessee House Minority Leader State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) were the two Democratic gubernatorial candidates in attendance.
Republican candidate Mae Beavers did not attend, due to the passing of her mother. Republican candidate Rep. Diane Black (R-TN-06) also did not attend, due to scheduling conflicts since Congress is currently in session.
NewsChannel5, the media co-sponsor, broadcast the forum live for one hour. NewsChannel5’s Rory Johnson was co-moderator of the event, along with reporter David Plazas from media co-sponsor The USA Today – Tennessee.
The moderators posed about a dozen questions to the candidates covering a wide range of topics from testing, compensation for teachers, charter schools, school funding, school safety, to in-state-tuition for illegals.
Not surprisingly, all candidates said teachers should be paid more.
Bill Lee said that, in addition to being paid more, teachers should be allowed “the freedom to teach.”
All the candidates were critical of the roll out of the TN Ready testing program, though they differed, by degree, in what should be done about it.
“They all hit their points, but it started slow,” one educator in attendance told The Tennessee Star.
“I wish they would have talked more about the working conditions and the teacher workload,” the educator added.
The sharpest partisan divide came when moderator Rory Johnson posed a question about in-state-tuition for students he described as “undocumented,” which The Star refers to instead–and accurately so–as illegal aliens.
“Proposed legislation to offer in-state tuition to undocumented students that graduate from Tennessee high schools has failed in recent years. Let’s assume Congress passes DACA but leaves the question of things such as tuition up to the states. What would you do or not do when it comes to access to higher education for so-called Dreamers?” Johnson asked.
Democrats Fitzhugh and Dean went all-in in their support for in-state-tuition for illegal aliens.
“These Dreamers are young people who came to our country not of their free will, they were brought here by their parents, they were brought here at very early ages. They grew up here, they went to school here, they have families here, they have friends here. And they’re different from Georgians, because they’re Tennesseans. They’re part of our community,” Dean said, as applause broke out from the liberal university crowd in attendance, who had been admonished by the moderators against applause during questions and responses prior to the start of the event.
“Please, please, hold your applause,” moderator Johnson interjected.
“I would just conclude and say I would sign the bill [granting illegal immigrants in Tennessee in-state tuition],” Dean said.
“The question to me is not what would I do but what have I done. I’m the only person on this panel who has voted to do that [provide in-state tuition to illegal immigrants], and I will vote to do that again,” Fitzhugh said.
“It is cruel that we do not let these children that have lived in Tennessee all their life have in-state tuition,” Fitzhugh concluded.
The liberal audience applauded Fitzhugh’s remarks, but the moderators did not point out to State Rep. Fitzhugh that the illegal immigrants in question, by definition, have not lived in Tennessee all their lives, because if they had, they would have been citizens.
The Republicans took the opposite position.
“I also know that our primary responsibility and my responsibility as Governor is to take care of the citizens of Tennessee. For me it’s really just an issue of fairness. 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. So I would be opposed to in-state tuition for illegal immigrants,” Lee said.
“I would agree that it is cruel that our federal government has not reformed its immigration policies. This program is definitely in limbo. Most of the colleagues that I serve with believe it is an illegal program, therefore I would not be supportive. If out-of-state tuition is a bad thing, then it should be bad for my two children that were born in America because I paid out-of-state tuition for all eight years,” Speaker Harwell said.
“Congress has let us down on the immigration issue,” Boyd said.
“We are hopeful Congress will make a decision and create some status for these individuals so that, as Bill says, we can show some compassion, but the fact is that in-state tuition in the state of Tennessee is for people that are here lawfully and so my position would be until they’re lawful then we would not be giving them in-state tuition,” Boyd concluded.
Boyd’s answer in the forum left some wiggle room on the issue, since virtually all of the estimated 8,000 DACA recipients who currently reside in the state of Tennessee have been granted two year work permits by the Department of Homeland Security under a program that, though many conservatives believe it to be unconstitutional, has not yet been declared so by the courts.
Since the Trump administration stopped renewing those work permits back in September, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 of these DACA recipients in Tennessee are in possession of work permits that have expired, making them unlawful residents. After the Ninth Circuit Court ordered the Trump administration to restart DACA on January 15, these currently unlawful residents are eligible to reapply for work permits now, though it is unclear how many who do so will receive such permits.
The remaining 7,000 to 7,500 DACA recipients with unexpired work permits are currently lawful residents, but may be declared unlawful if the Supreme Court determines the DACA program to be unconstitutional.
The Star asked Boyd to clarify his position in an exclusive interview held in the “spin room” at the Curb Center after the forum.
“Is it your position that a recipient of an unexpired two year work permit that they get through DACA, through the DACA program, is it your position that that person is not a lawful resident of the United States?” The Star asked Boyd.
“I don’t understand the question. I don’t know the answer,” Boyd responded.
“You said [in the forum] they [illegal immigrants] shouldn’t be able to pay in-state tuition until they’re lawful residents. That’s the reason for the question,” The Star added.
“If you’re not a lawful resident, you don’t get in-state tuition. Pretty clear,” Boyd said.
“Is it your position that the DACA recipients with work permits are lawful or not?” The Star asked.
“They’re not lawful citizens of the state of Tennessee,” Boyd answered.
For the moment, however, DACA recipients with unexpired work permits are considered lawful residents, though they are not lawful citizens.
Though most in attendance The Star spoke with considered the event a draw, at least one teacher in the audience gave Speaker Harwell the best grade.
“Speaker Harwell showed her command knowledge over the other candidates on educational issues,” teacher Kyle Mallory, who attended the event, told The Star.
“The questions were geared toward the moderate Republican and Democratic candidates, such as the emphasis on ‘Drive to 55,'” Mallory added.