Concerns about education dominated the conversation during a debate between Tennessee House District 30 candidates at East Hamilton Middle High School on Monday night.
The forum pit Jonathan Mason, one of the two candidates vying for the GOP nomination, against lone Democrat Joda Thongnopnua, with both fielding questions about school safety, inequity, charter schools and standardized testing.
Fellow Republican candidate Esther Helton told organizers she would be unable to attend the meeting, citing a prior commitment.
The topic of education seeped into conversations about tackling the issue of systemic poverty, which one attendee called the root cause of many of the problems state representatives were scrambling to fix.
Mason said he believed the solution lay in programs like the Future Ready Institutes, which prepare students for post-secondary options through small, industry-themed learning communities.
“One of the greatest ways to get out of poverty is with a paycheck,” Mason said. “With the amount of jobs that are available now, we want to make sure that we have students that are trained for those jobs.”
Thongnopnua, however, argued that raising the minimum wage to a “reasonable” amount like $10 per hour would give locals better access to the middle class.
Fresh on the heels of the national immigration debate, candidates were asked how they would vote on a bill now in the Tennessee Legislature that would allow in-state tuition for some undocumented students.
Thongnopnua said he would want to ensure immigrants were treated with “dignity and respect” and allowed access to a good education. He illustrated his stance by pointing to his father, who immigrated to the states legally from Thailand at the age of 9.
“From 7 in the morning to 9 o'clock at night, he busted his tail end working two or three jobs just to make ends meet, and he did it with a smile on his face because he so desperately wanted to provide for his family,” Thongnopnua said. “I think my dad is the best this country has to offer. He represents the ingenuity of the American spirit.”
Mason agreed the U.S. immigration system needed “a lot of work,” but stressed he wanted to make sure the state was supporting the laws put in place by the federal government.
“I think illegal is illegal, and we want to make sure that our laws in America are being followed,” he said. “We want to make sure things are done in the right way. I think that's what most Tennesseans are looking for on that issue.”
Both candidates indicated they would like to work across the aisle to create bipartisan solutions for some of the area's most pressing problems, with Mason doubling down on education and Thongnopnua looking to tackle predatory lending, which keeps people in debt by charging high interest rates for small, short-term loans.
“Our county delegation and our school board has done an incredible job of making sure that the functioning of our local governments have been about the residents and not about partisan ideology,” Thongnopnua said. “Although there is going to be an R or a D next to our names on the ballot, I believe that the choices that we're facing are a lot bigger than that.”
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