Six of Tennessee's seven gubernatorial candidates met face-to-face with business leaders in Nashville to discuss the priorities for each campaign. The candidates answered questions on K-12 education, healthcare, and the state's opioid crisis.
Political analyst Pat Nolan moderated the forum and said the event marks the start of what will be a long but interesting campaign.
"We're still early in the campaign," Nolan said. "But you can feel pretty good overall about the field. I think you can look in there and find someone you really like."
Each candidate emphasized the importance of education, and particularly technical education over traditional college courses.
Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean said his top education priority would be to increase teacher pay.
"We need to make sure we're paying our teachers enough to attract and retain the best," Dean said.
Democrat Craig Fitzhugh, Tennessee's House Minority Leader, said he supports continuing and expanding pre-k education, but also wants to emphasize literacy.
"I want children to learn to read by third grade, and then I want them to cath that fire about reading and read to learn past that," Fitzhugh said.
Other candidates focused on filling jobs. Speaker Beth Harwell said she's proven she can bring business leaders and employers to the table when it comes to changing education.
"When you go to education committee hearings now, it's all business leaders, and that's because we've changed the dialogue," Harwell said. "The business community now understands how important having a trained, prepared workforce is. And that all takes place in schools."
Entrepreneur Randy Boyd said education could change the fate of rural Tennessee. He said his administration would work toward a "rural renaissance."
"Where people are moving back to the small towns, where there's great education, great jobs, and everybody has broadband,' Boyd said. "Why deal with hours of traffic and why deal with schools that are overcrowded when you can go to a small town and have a great job, get a great education and have a great way of life?"
Heating and cooling CEO Bill Lee said technical training will make all the difference.
"Companies like mine would be thrilled to be in a partnership with a public school to create apprenticeships to help children understand their education is not just about academic performance," Lee said. "It's about career and whole person readiness."
Former State Senator Mae Beavers said she would move educational control from the state to counties, particularly when it comes to standardized testing.
"I'm hearing a lot of complaints about teachers being forced to teach to the test," Beavers said. "They're talented and they want to teach our children. I think we need to turn them loose and take some of the testing away from them."
Candidate Diane Black did not attend Tuesday's forum. Instead, she spoke via brief, pre-recorded video remarks.