Dems tussle on charter schools in Tennessee governor debate

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George Walker IV/The Tennessean via AP

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The two leading Democrats in Tennessee’s open governor’s race tussled during a debate Tuesday over charter schools, the National Rifle Association and one candidate’s use of federal flood money to build a downtown Nashville amphitheater.

State House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh quickly questioned ex-Nashville Mayor Karl Dean’s history of charter school support. Fitzhugh pointed out he has the endorsement of the Tennessee Education Association teachers group.

“I was not in favor of taking public money and giving it to private or nonprofit charter schools that reduces the amount of money that our public schools have,” Fitzhugh, a Ripley lawmaker, said during the debate at Belmont University. “It just won’t work.”

Dean, who is running as a moderate in a red state — even quoting Ronald Reagan during the debate — said he supports charter schools in urban, not rural, areas. He said Fitzhugh once voted for charter schools, and Dean’s campaign said it was in a 2009 expansion bill.

“I am opposed to vouchers, and I am opposed to for-profit charter schools,” Dean said at the event also hosted by WSMV-TV and the USA Today Network – Tennessee. “Mr. Fitzhugh actually voted for charter schools and helped created the system when he was in the Legislature.”

Fitzhugh told reporters he has never been in favor of charter schools, but with that legislation he wanted to let regular public schools become charter schools without changing their administrations.

“This wouldn’t have cost any money,” Fitzhugh said. “The public school would have kept the money. They would have just had less regulation, like a charter school does. I just thought it was only fair.”

Dean discussed Nashville’s spending under his watch of $7.4 million in federal flood funding on a downtown amphitheater after 2010 flooding, saying it was totally appropriate, approved at multiple levels and widely publicized.

He said that after three years, no one was requesting the aid and Dean said he was told the money would be lost if it wasn’t used. He said the housing fund still has money in it and no one has been turned away. He said the use of the money was within the grant’s purposes, which included flood mitigation and economic recovery.

Fitzhugh has brought up the issue to question whether the public can trust Dean.

“I think the public trust remains intact and I’m proud of the way this city recovered from the flood and the way our city employees and everybody reacted,” Dean said. “It was a high point in our city’s history.”

Fitzhugh said Dean has given four different explanations of how the money was spent.

“We have to say what we mean and mean what we say,” Fitzhugh said.

Fitzhugh also questioned Nashville’s welcoming of the National Rifle Association’s 2015 convention. Dean said he believes in the First Amendment and said the city would’ve been sued if it said no. Fitzhugh responded that public money from the local visitor’s bureau didn’t need to be used, though.

The primary election for governor is on Aug. 2.

Republican debates for governor will follow on Wednesday evening and again on June 26.

The one-hour debate will be held at 7 p.m. CT Wednesday at Pope John Paul II High School in Hendersonville. Legislative issues and crime are among the topics of discussion.

The debate will include Tennessee House Speaker Beth Harwell, Congresswoman Diane Black, former state Commissioner of Economic and Community Development Randy Boyd and businessman Bill Lee.

It will be the second debate in the statewide Tennessee Governor Debate Series. The first debate was held April 18 in Memphis. A final debate will be held July 22 in Knoxville. The series is being produced by Nexstar Media Group.

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