INDIANAPOLIS – Two C’s and an F were the marks given by a group of high school debate students to three candidates for governor who met on a school stage Tuesday and were given the assignment of hashing out education issues.
The candidates, Republican Eric Holcomb, Democrat John Gregg and Libertarian Rex Bell, left few distinctions among them. Political rhetoric and a lack of detailed answers to tough questions, including one about jobs for teens and another about college tuition for immigrants living illegally in the United States, left students saying they felt “cheated” by their choices to lead the state.
“I feel like I was robbed of the opportunity to see an actual debate because everybody was agreeing with each other,” said Caleb Jones, 18.
All three candidates backed the notion of getting rid of ISTEP, the state’s standardized test which has experienced multiple problems in recent years, including months-long delays in getting results to students and teachers.
But none offered a detailed plan of what should replace it, other than a test that is shorter and quicker.
All three candidates backed the idea of rewarding teachers more, but none offered details of how to pay for it. “No one really spoke their mind,” said senior Robert Holland. “Yeah, their answers were designed to evade,” said sophomore Julia Stone.
Jones, Holland and Stone were among a group of about 600 students, mostly seniors, drawn from seven high schools to watch the first of three scheduled exchanges hosted by the Indiana Debate Commission.
Gathered in the auditorium of Lawrence North High School in Indianapolis, the students asked most of the questions. Some left deeply disappointed.
Among them was Jones and fellow members of a Lawrence North debate class that sat in the front rows. Students at other high schools around the state were watching the debate live-streamed online.
“If that was me up on the stage, my teacher would have given me an F,” said sophomore Liz Sheldon, critiquing the Libertarian Bell’s answers – or “non-answers,” as she described them – to questions ranging from school funding to standardized tests.
Holcomb and Gregg fared better in their grades, though not by much. Both earned C’s from the debate class.
All candidates were marked down for failing to provide what the students thought should be substantive answers that illustrate their differences. They also failed to counter their opponents when given the chance to rebut.
A question that left students wanting more was posed by a student from Arsenal Tech High School, where 80 percent of the students qualify for the federal free- and reduced-lunch program, double the state’s average.
The Arsenal Tech student wanted to know what the candidates would do to create more jobs for teenagers in economically distressed areas. None offered a concrete solution, though each acknowledged the general value of work.
That left debate class student Tyrae’ Smith wanting more from Holcomb, the current lieutenant governor, and Gregg, the former speaker of the Indiana House. “They’ve been in politics a long time. They should have better answers,” Smith said.
There was little heat generated during the debate, in part due to the lack of follow-up by candidates, despite the chances the candidates were given to rebut one another.
Gregg and Holcomb disagree on some key education issues, among them being Indiana’s fast-growing school choice programs that include the use of taxpayer-funded vouchers for students to attend private schools. But little of that difference emerged during the tepid debate.
Another question that left the debate students feeling empty addressed in-state college tuition for students who are living in the country illegally but are longtime residents of the state. The General Assembly banned giving them in-state tuition, a practice once widely used by the state’s public universities, in 2011.
Holcomb dodged the question, saying there was little interest from lawmakers in changing the law.
Gregg, while expressing sympathy for those students, said such a decision might require a “case by case” evaluation. He didn’t say what the criteria would be. Debate class teacher Sylvania Hernandez said the question was important to her students. “They have classmates who are undocumented, so it’s a concern for them,” she said.
Hernadez graded the candidates on a tough scale, as well. Of the three, she thought Gregg offered more direct answers, such as when he talked about funding options for expanding pre-school programs for 4-year-olds.
But like her students, Hernadez felt the candidates failed to engage in a vigorous debate because of their audience. Perhaps they worried the students couldn’t grasp the nuances of education policy.
After the debate, Gregg admitted to holding back out of courtesy, wanting to model civility for the students.
That left students like Smith, who’s registered to vote, unhappy. “If I’m old enough to vote, I’m old enough to hear their real opinions,” he said.
Undecided on whom to support, Smith said he’s waiting for the next debate, scheduled for Oct. 3 at the University of Indianapolis, which will be televised.
“I’m going to watch the next debate to hear what their real opinions are since they won’t be in front of kids,” he said.
Hayden is CNHI's Statehouse bureau reporter.