(Rising Sun, Ind.) - Education was the biggest issue up for debate as candidates for Indiana House District 67 met up in Rising Sun Tuesday evening.
Incumbent State Rep. Randy Frye (R-Greensburg) debated with Democrat candidate Tom Cheek, of Aurora, at an event hosted by the Rising Sun PTO at the Rising Sun Senior Citizens Center.
Cheek said he will make improving Indiana’s education a priority, mainly through giving control back to local school districts, if elected.
“We don’t want to have a whole generation of kids grow up that are getting cheated on their education because some politicians in Indianapolis decided they need to take money away from education and put the teachers on a state testing program instead of in the classroom where they belong,” Cheek said.
Cheek said he opposed creating competition in education through the Indiana School Choice program, a publically-funded private school voucher initiative by the Indiana Department of Education. Frye, one of the lawmakers who voted to approve the program in 2011, defended his vote.
“The voucher system is established to take care of the needs of the very least of our society. You can only make $40,200 and be eligible for $4,500 tuition. By the way, that money follows the child,” Frye said.
The candidates were asked about the IDOE’s new A through F grading scale for Indiana schools and districts. Frye said as a parent who once had children in school, he did not have the benefit of knowing how a school was performing.
“It helps us as a state to determine those schools that need help. One of the things an evaluation does is identify quality schools. Another thing it does is identify weak points – not to destroy it, but to make it better,” said the Republican candidate.
Cheek shifted the question to privatization of schools, arguing that the IDOE is allowing lowly rated schools to be overtaken by for-profit companies.
“I don’t think anybody wants a company to come in here, especially from another state, and say, ‘We are taking over your school and are going to run it for a profit and we are going to use your tax dollars. You are going to give them to us and we are going to run your school’… …The state has cut almost a billion dollars in three years from public schools to make this happen,” said Cheek.
As the debate shifted to other state issues, Frye defended his vote for Indiana’s recently enacted right to work law, which restricts employers in the state from requiring an employee to join a union or pay union fees in as a condition of employment.
“In the United States you have the right to freedom of speech, but you also have the right to remain silent. You have the right to freedom of religion, but nobody is going to force you to go to church. You have the right to join a labor union. As I said, I’m still a member paying union dues out of my pension. You ought to have the right to not pay it if you don’t want to,” argued Frye.
Cheek, a 33-year pipefitters union member, said the right to work law means a right for Indiana worker to work for less because it will drive down wages. He spoke of his various union endorsements.
“In my mind, anybody that would vote, much less co-sponsor a right to work bill, I’m surprised his union even endorses him,” Cheek jabbed at Frye.
Statehouse Democrats made improving the Indiana Department of Child Services a priority in the 2012 legislative session. Cheek said he will never vote for anything that hurts kids.
“They’ve cut the budget so much,” Cheek said, adding that calls to the IDOCS are answered by an automation system in Indianapolis. “To me that’s unacceptable.”
Frye agreed, saying the department has improved greatly since Governor Mitch Daniels took office eight years ago, but there remains room for improvement.
“I don’t like the auto attendant. I think that’s a mistake. I do like the fact that we have local people that can take care of the issues and I’d like to see that done,” Frye said.
Improving southeast Indiana’s technology and telecommunications infrastructure was another issue brought up during the debate. Frye, former owner of Blue River Telecommunications, said the problem is affecting the region’s business development, but it’s one of the efforts he is spearheading.
“In the summer of 2011 I held a meeting with the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission with all the providers of cell service, internet service, and cable TV and got some wonderful programs going on. That includes two new cell towers in Milan and Elrod. But that’s two and we probably need 30,” Frye said, adding he’s held similar meetings as recent as last week.
“Technology is the lynch pin for our society to grow,” he said. “Without it we are going to continue to lag behind.”
Cheek accused Frye of using his position as a former telecom company owner to accomplish the local advances.
When asked which top issues they would tackle at the statehouse if elected, Cheek said he would focus on restoring education funding and improving public infrastructure. Frye touted his push for expanded natural gas programs and his proposed natural gas bill in the Indiana House.
“I’ve found out we have an abundance of natural gas in the United States, more than a 100 year supply. It’s 95 percent cleaner in carbon that gasoline and Indiana is heavily invested in it,” Frye said.
Cheek was skeptical of the natural gas benefit to southeast Indiana residents. To convert a car to run on natural gas costs at least $6,500, a cost that most families in the district could not afford, he said.
The House District 67 debate was followed by a question and answer session with candidates for Rising Sun-Ohio County Community Schools Board of Trustees candidates in districts 1, 2, and 3.
The HD 67 debate and the school board session can be heard on Eagle 99.3’s Soundbytes page.