Minnesota gubernatorial candidates Jeff Johnson and Tim Walz squared off in a debate Wednesday morning at the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce to discuss workforce issues.
The candidates remained civil throughout the discussion, but things grew noticeably heated when Minnesota’s achievement gap was mentioned, with the state consistently ranking among the worst in the country.
Johnson, on the one hand, emphasized empowering parents to have more say in their children’s education, particularly through the use of school vouchers. Walz, however, doesn’t believe school choice is a practical solution to the problem.
According to Walz, who spent 20 years as a teacher, vouchers don’t take into account the necessary “housing,” “transportation,” or other resources necessary to allow parents to take advantage of a voucher.
“I think this is the most significant moral issue we have in Minnesota today. We have had the worst, or one of the worst achievement gaps in our education system for 40 years, and nothing has gotten better,” Johnson replied, saying he will work to provide improvements for “parents and teachers.”
Johnson wants to offer parents “more control over their children’s education” if they feel their child is in a school that “is failing them,” but also believes many schools have their hands tied with bad teachers because of their unions.
“As a 20 year teacher, that is absolutely false,” Walz replied. “You’re not going to fire your way to good schools; you’re going to hire your way to good schools.”
Johnson acknowledged that “empowering parents is not going to solve the problem alone, but it will help the parents who want something different.”
“The answer always is: well we just have to spend a little more money, or maybe a lot more money. That hasn’t worked. All by itself that is not going to solve the problem,” he added.
The two candidates also addressed the decreasing number of child care providers throughout the state, which prevents parents, especially single mothers, from participating fully in the workforce.
Johnson blamed the “unionization games” for the problem, but also criticized the Department of Human Services for “regulating our child care providers right out of business.”
Walz mostly agreed with Johnson’s approach, saying that as governor he would do more to make sure that funds for Minnesota’s Child Care Assistance Program go to the right businesses, alluding to the child care fraud happening in the state.
Johnson expressed some disagreement with Walz on the issue of transportation and public transit in Minnesota, saying that he believes Minnesota needs to “start with roads and bridges.” The Republican said he supports “transit so long as it has a decent return on investment.”
“The cost is tremendous,” but it “doesn’t do much to relieve congestion,” Johnson argued, saying a better bus system across the Twin Cities area would be more versatile.
Walz noted that he was open to having a conversation on increasing the Minnesota gas tax to help fund public transit, though Johnson immediately criticized Walz for making yet another promise to increase spending. In fact, Johnson said his campaign is in the process of compiling a list of all of Walz’s spending promises, which is already reaching the “tens of billions of dollars.”
The candidates also discussed the $166 million in annual funds for the state’s job-training program, which both agreed needs more “accountability.”
In the latest poll, Johnson trailed Walz 36 percent to 45 percent, but 16 percent of respondents were still undecided.
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