Georgia Constitutional amendment referendums on education and the state judicial qualifications commission were a primary focus of a brief debate between State Rep. Taylor Bennett and his Republican opponent Meagan Hanson at Oglethorpe University on Oct. 18.
The 30-minute debate between the candidates for House District 80, which includes Brookhaven, Sandy Springs and Chamblee, also covered traffic issues, Medicaid expansion and what role their political parties play in their decision making.
Oglethorpe University President Lawrence Schall served as moderator for the debate. Although the allotted time for the debate was one hour, the debate ended in right at a half-hour when Schall apparently had no more questions.
Bennett is seeking to be re-elected to his first full term after winning a special election last year to replace former Rep. Mike Jacobs, a Republican, after he resigned to take a DeKalb County judge seat.
The first question asked was about the Opportunity School District constitutional amendment referendum on the Nov. 8 ballot.
Under Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan, schools that receive an “F” rating from the state Department of Education for three years in a row could be temporarily assigned to a new “Opportunity School District” (OSD). Two schools along metro Atlanta’s northern arc are on the list — DeKalb County’s Montclair and Woodward elementary schools, both located in Brookhaven.
Hanson said she readily supports the OSD referendum based on results in school districts in Memphis, Tenn., and New Orleans, which are the models for the Georgia plan.
“I know in Memphis the graduation rate is up 19 percent,” she said.
She also began the debate by accusing Bennett of being beholden to Washington, D.C.-based teachers’ unions which have funneled money into the state to oppose OSD.
“You’re probably about to hear my opponent regurgitate teacher union talking points. But the bottom line is we are funding education right now,” Hanson said.
“Since 2011, Gov. Deal has increased school funding by $1.5 billion. Actually, it’s the local school districts who are decreasing funding for education. The state is doing its part. Now it’s time to hold [local school district] accountable,” she said. “This is not a silver bullet, but it’s a step in the right direction and we have to take some bold leadership and we’ve got to do the right thing.”
Bennett said he opposed the OSD referendum because he does not favor putting local schools under a state-run plan.
“I believe access to quality education is a fundamental right for every child. I want to be clear that I am pro charter school, pro public schools and pro private schools. But I want to ensure that whatever choice parents make for their children is the best choice,” he said.
He said he didn’t believe Georgia had lived up to its promise of ensuring quality education for all students, saying the state has underfunded public education since 2002 by billions of dollars. An OSD solution is “putting the cart before the horse,” Bennett added, because control of selected schools would be put under control of a statewide agency with an unelected administrator.
“It will be administered by an appointed individual [appointed by the governor] and would close out local control,” he said. “The question I’d rather we be asking is what can we do to make smart investments into our teachers and students so they can achieve the success we require of them.”
Hanson rebutted Bennett’s answer by saying, “Number one, he just did what I said he would do — he regurgitated teachers’ unions talking points.”
“This would not be a statewide school system in the least,” she said. “It doesn’t take control [of local school districts]; it holds them accountable.”
Bennett and Hanson also took on the Judicial Qualification Commission referendum also on the Nov. 8 ballot. The referendum would get rid of the independent watchdog agency that monitors state judges and replace it with another committee to be run by the state legislature.
Hanson supports the referendum; Bennett opposes it.
“I’m not exactly a fan of bringing [this committee] inside the legislature and allowing the legislature to appoint members,” Bennett said, adding he believed appointees would be subject to political influence if the referendum is approved.
“I think it’s important to maintain separate bodies of government and I don’t think this [referendum] does that,” he said.
Hanson said she would rather have elected officials appoint members to a judicial watchdog group rather than members of the State Bar of Georgia.
“We have the opportunity with this amendment to have it so that elected officials who are accountable to you will oversee” the committee,” she said.
On the pressing issue of traffic, Bennett said one of his first tasks after he was elected was to set up a meeting between the city of Brookhaven, the Atlanta Regional Commission and the Georgia Department of Transportation to determine ways to get funding for projects to ease congestion in the city.
Hanson chided Bennett for not putting forward any transportation bills during his first year in office. She said if elected she would request to be put on the Transportation Committee and the MARTA funding committee. She said she would work with state legislators to find innovative solutions to ease traffic, supported MARTA expansion and also a comprehensive review of the district’s major traffic areas, such as North Druid Hills Road, Johnson Ferry Road and Ashford-Dunwoody Road.
Bennett said solving transportation issues takes time and that it was important to not sacrifice the quality of life when finding solutions. He also said legislators currently serving in the General Assembly fail to make transportation a top priority.
“I can’t emphasize enough how behind the ball we are,” he said. “It takes a little political courage to step up and create the capital investments we need to build our infrastructure. If we don’t do that we will absolutely build ourselves out of our communities.”
On the issue of health care and Medicaid expansion in the state, Hanson said she was wary of accepting federal funds to do so because the money comes with “strings attached.”
Bennett said he fully supported Medicaid expansion in Georgia because it is “an economic and moral imperative.”
Both candidates agreed with Gov. Deal’s veto of the “campus carry” firearm bill last year and said they supported background checks, including for those with mental health issues and also in instances of domestic violence.
On a question about party affiliation, both candidates said they were not afraid to put what they believed to be right for the district over what their party supported.
Bennett said one of the first bills he sponsored was to remove the DeKalb County CEO, an issue not popular with the Democratic delegation, but that was a position he knew House District 80 supported. Hanson said she parted ways with Republicans when she opposed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as well as the campus carry bill.
In closing arguments, Hanson said the district deserved a state legislator who is “more action than talk.”
Bennett pointed to his co-sponsorship of what is known as the “rape kit” bill, with lead sponsor and fellow Democrat Rep. Scott Holcomb of Doraville. He said despite the bill’s opposition by Republican Sen. Renee Unterman, chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, the bill was passed by the legislature in the final minutes of last session because “being on the right side of history” always defeats those in power.