John Ragan and Jim Hackworth agree that jobs and education should be top priorities in the next legislative session in the Tennessee General Assembly.
For the most part, the agreement seems to end there. In recent forums, the candidates have clashed over voter identification laws, school vouchers, virtual and charter schools, and jobs and unemployment numbers.
The Tennessee Democratic and Republican parties and other supporters have taken an active role in the high-stakes battle, sending out press releases, letters, and glossy flyers bashing their opponents and praising their candidates.
The two men are running in one of a half-dozen key races in the Nov. 6 election. Both want to represent District 33 in the Tennessee House of Representatives. The district includes most of Anderson County.
The outcome will help decide whether Republicans gain a supermajority in the Tennessee House. If they do, they would be able to conduct business even if Democrats walk out.
Ragan, an Oak Ridge Republican, is a retired U.S. Air Force fighter pilot who beat Hackworth, a four-term legislator and former Anderson County commissioner, in the November 2010 election.
In a League of Women Voters forum this month, Hackworth, a Clinton Democrat, criticized Ragan for casting the only vote against House Bill 1329 in April 2011. That bill allows a court to prohibit anyone convicted of child abuse or aggravated child abuse from contacting a victim if the convict doesn’t have parental rights.
Ragan, who is completing his first term, said he campaigned for a smaller government, and there are already laws in place that do what HB1329 did, including the Tennessee Crime Victims Bill of Rights and the Tennessee Sex Offender Treatment Board Act.
“That law did nothing,” he said of HB1329. “I refuse to compromise my principles.”
The candidates were asked how to reduce bullying and make schools safer.
Ragan said there is no excuse for bullying, and teachers and administrators are responsible for ensuring it doesn’t happen. But courts have said educators can’t use those efforts to deprive students of their freedom of speech or religion, he said.
A child with glasses will probably be called “four eyes,” and one with braces may be nicknamed “metal mouth,” Ragan said. Schools don’t have the right to interfere beyond ensuring rights guaranteed under the U.S. Constitution, he said.
“We have to safeguard our liberties,” Ragan said.
Hackworth criticized Ragan’s legislative actions on anti-bullying bills, suggesting he is trying to take those initiatives back in time.
“Bullying is wrong,” Hackworth said.
Ragan said he supports the use of school vouchers in failing school systems. The vouchers, which can be used for private school tuition, would likely be used in very limited circumstances, Ragan said. If a school system is failing, the money is being wasted anyway, he said.
“We need to give them a way to get out of that,” Ragan said.
“Vouchers do more harm than good to a failing school system,” he said. “If the system has problems, then you fix it.”
He also said he opposed to taking away money from public schools for charter schools.
“It’s to weaken public education to weaken the current system,” Hackworth said.
The candidates were asked about the reported low performance rankings of the new Tennessee Virtual Academy, an online school run by K12 Inc. in Virginia. It’s managed in Tennessee by Union County Schools.
Ragan was less critical of the overall effort. He said Tennessee has ranked in the bottom 20 percent of student achievement nationally for decades, and some students need to take classes not available in their local systems.
“Do we want to penalize them?” he asked. “We’ve got to change the status quo.”
If the virtual academy doesn’t perform well, Ragan said, the contract could be given to someone else.
Hackworth said virtual schools have some merit. However, the current system, heavily criticized by Democrats, allots about 5 percent of the public funding to the Union County school system, and the rest of the money goes out-of-state, he said.
“It’s taking money from our school systems,” Hackworth said during an Oak Ridge Education Association forum last month.
Hackworth said the online academy should have started as a pilot program.
“The virtual school has been, so far, a total failure,” Hackworth said.
Ragan supported a new photo ID law for voters, saying photo IDs are required to board an airplane or cash a check. Republicans have said the legislation was meant to combat voter fraud.
But Hackworth said the intent of the new law is voter suppression.
“It’s all about keeping people from turning out,” Hackworth said.
The two candidates tangled over state contracts with out-of-state companies. Ragan said he would continue to allow them, while Hackworth said he believes jobs and business opportunities should first be offered to Tennessee companies.
“The best bargain for the voter is the lowest bid,” Ragan said.
“We need to take care of Tennesseans and Anderson County (residents),” Hackworth said.
Ragan said he had helped cut taxes and reduced the state budget.
Hackworth said job creation is down under Ragan, claiming last year’s numbers were the lowest in a decade in Anderson County.
“Are you better off now than you were two years ago?” Hackworth asked. “The answer is no.”
But Ragan said the unemployment rate rose while Hackworth was in office, and Tennessee students ranked near the bottom in academic achievement.
“Our state deserves better,” he said.
Last year, TCAP and ACT scores rose across the state, Ragan said.
Early voting for the Nov. 6 election ends Thursday.