Education in spotlight for Delaware House candidates


From left, Sean Barney (D), Lisa Blunt Rochester (D), Scott Gesty (L), Mike Miller (D), Bryan Townsend (D) and Scott Walker (D) at the congressional debate at Christiana Cultural Arts Center in Wilmington on Thursday night. Republican candidate Hans Reigle and Democrat Elias Weir did not attend the debate. (Special to the Delaware State News/Doug Curran)

From left, Sean Barney (D), Lisa Blunt Rochester (D), Scott Gesty (L), Mike Miller (D), Bryan Townsend (D) and Scott Walker (D) at the congressional debate at Christiana Cultural Arts Center in Wilmington on Thursday night. Republican candidate Hans Reigle and Democrat Elias Weir did not attend the debate. (Special to the Delaware State News/Doug Curran)

WILMINGTON — In contrast to some debates earlier this year, candidates for Delaware’s open seat in the U.S. House disagreed and even went after each other on occasion Thursday.

Mike Miller questioned fellow Democrat Sean Barney’s commitment to the office he seeks, and Libertarian Scott Gesty drew some criticism from several Democrats on stage when he suggested arming teachers.

The debate, hosted by the DelaCORE Leaders, Metropolitan Wilmington Urban League Young Professionals and The PACE Network and held at the Christina Cultural Arts Center, featured six of the eight candidates running for the seat, and while it focused on education, discussion expanded to touch on poverty, the economy and more.

The biggest reaction came discussing school safety, when Mr. Gesty, the only non-Democrat participating, advocated for allowing teachers to be able to utilize guns to prevent school shootings, a comment that drew reaction from an incredulous audience.

“For outside safety purposes of protecting the kids, we should really have an adult conversation about empowering the teachers, giving them training and access to firearms in schools to prevent massacres until the police can come and take care of the situation, take control of the situation,” he said. “The teachers are the first line of defense for our kids, we trust them.”

State Sen. Bryan Townsend called it a “sensationalized” solution, and, when Mr. Gesty pressed him, asked the audience to clap if they agreed arming teachers is a bad idea. Loud applause followed.

Later, Mr. Miller criticized Mr. Barney, seeking to cast doubts among the audience as to his sincerity.

“He wanted to be our state treasurer just two years ago, now he wants to be our congressman. If he doesn’t win this one I want to know what he’s going to go to next,” he said.

Mr. Barney did not address the comments, focusing instead on his background and goals.

About 100 people, including educators, attended the debate, one of the few events to feature candidates other than the Democrats seeking the office. Republican Hans Reigle declined to attend, saying in an email he had committed to a veterans fundraiser in Dover several months earlier. Democrat Elias Weir also was not present.

Based on funding, Sen. Townsend, Lisa Blunt Rochester and Mr. Barney are clearly ahead of Mr. Miller, Mr. Weir and Scott Walker, but with 25 days remaining until the Democratic primary, nothing is set in stone.

Political insiders also separate the candidates into two identical groups of leaders and others.

Thursday, lively discussion ensued as the candidates discussed standardizing testing and the right of parents to opt their children out, a saga that played itself out in the General Assembly in 2015.

The House hopefuls largely agreed testing can be helpful in measuring students but also said the state has put too much focus on it at times.

“I understand why some folks would want to opt out, but for myself, as a parent, also as a person who comes from a civil rights background, you have to measure growth,” Ms. Blunt Rochester said. “Maybe that’s what is part of the challenge, is that people were concerned about what we were measuring. To not measure anything is a problem.”

A majority of the candidates were in agreement on issues, with Mr. Gesty, who was particularly critical of the government, standing out at times — something he acknowledged.

Five of the six said the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which hands more control back to the states, is a good thing. Mr. Walker, who said he was running to stop discrimination and several times claimed disabled individuals are being treated unfairly by schools, dissented.

“Accountability rules, that’s not going to cut it. Federalism has to be enacted and the federal government has to come in here like they did in the ’60s with all the other problems we have and clean this mess up,” he said to applause.

Five out of six again agreed on the subject of universal preschool, with Mr. Gesty this time taking a different stance, as he suggested preschool supported by tax dollars would decline in quality and rise in price.

Mr. Barney cited efforts by Gov. Jack Markell to expand on early childhood education, and several candidates noted children who do not receive early education are behind those who do.

“They need to have education and nurturing from day one in order to succeed,” said Sen. Townsend, who frequently pointed on his background as a state lawmaker.

There was general consensus on the issue of student loan debt as well, although not everyone agreed as to the solution.

Mr. Walker said the root cause lies with improving the economy, while several others mentioned specific ideas related to college debt.

“If you are willing to commit to serve your country, and it doesn’t have to be in the military, it can be here in our community in AmeriCorps, it can be in the Peace Corps, but if you commit to doing a period of national service we will help you graduate debt-free,” Mr. Barney proposed.

“So in that case it is not a good criticism often of debt-free or tuition-free higher ed of something for nothing. This would not be something for nothing. It would be for service, and we would all be better off because we would be a more civically engaged society, young people would learn the value of giving back and we would get the benefits of investing in our future.”

The primary is Sept. 13.

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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