Class Struggle

The Giffords-Bee education debate was no game-changer

6:30 p.m.: An hour before the third debate between Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and her Republican challenger, state Sen. Tim Bee, I notice a Giffords sign on the side of Prince Road. And then another. And another. The Giffords camp has sunk signs everywhere they could along a three-mile stretch of Prince Road leading to the debate at Flowing Wells High School.

As I arrive at Flowing Wells, I notice that the homes across the street have Giffords signs plastered all over their fences. This is a repeat of the first debate, when Giffords' volunteers covered the UA Student Union and the nearby area with a forest of signs. I'm struck by the fact that the Bee campaign hasn't tried to counter this "shock and awe" strategy.

7:25 p.m.: The crowd--such as it is--continues to trickle in. Turnout is about equal to the number of folks who turned out to see state Senate candidates Al Melvin and Cheryl Cage debate. Several people blame the low turnout on the fact that tonight is also the final McCain-Obama debate. That's an apt metaphor for this entire race, which has been almost completely overshadowed by national events.

7:30 p.m.: Mike Love, chair of the Flowing Wells School Board, takes the stage. In Michael Scott fashion, he launches into a long-winded introduction of the people who will be questioning the candidates, who include Mark Kimble of the Tucson Citizen, Bud Foster of KOLD-TV and a teacher.

7:45 p.m.: Bee and Giffords come onstage. Strangely, after he's spent 15 minutes introducing everyone else, Love's introduction of the candidates is limited to their names.

7:48 p.m.: Bee gives us a two-minute intro. He talks about his family's background in administration and teaching in TUSD. He says he understands the importance of education. "There's no greater challenge facing our nation right now that will determine our future," he says. Then he says he fought a lot of battles behind the scenes to support education. Evidently, it's hard to be seen fighting publicly for education if you're a Republican lawmaker.

7:50 p.m.: Giffords says she believes education is also key to the future and all children need an equal shot. "We are now experiencing a knowledge and technology-based revolution that's going to last 30 years," she says. "America is truly lagging behind." Giffords says we need to reduce class sizes, provide teachers with better pay and more training.

7:53 p.m.: The first question is about the No Child Left Behind Act. Bee thinks we need to reform it and fund it. Congress has failed to provide the necessary leadership to fix it. He says there's too much testing and the legislation is designed to undercut schools.

Giffords says No Child Left Behind is like a great-looking house that, after more inspection, turns out to be a "disaster" where nobody could live. Giffords says she's listened to complaints from education professionals and has testified before the House Education Committee and has said she won't support it without funding and "fundamental change."

Bee says Congress hasn't reformed it. "We need real leadership in Washington." He offers to sponsor legislation to reform the law.

Giffords says Democrats held off on pushing for reform until a new administration has been sworn in because the Bush administration would have blocked changes.

8:05 p.m.: A creationism question! Bud Foster wants to know if creationism or evolution should be taught in science classes.

Giffords says creationism doesn't belong in science classrooms, although it would be fine to teach it in religion classes, Sunday school, churches and at home. "Science needs to be taught in science classrooms."

Bee says the federal government shouldn't decide what should be taught in local classrooms, but adds that "there are competing opinions out there and children can make their own decision about what they believe about the world and how it came to be and that information is good to provide and let people think." He says it's important to teach critical thinking skills. My critical thinking skills tell me that teaching kids that the earth was created by a supernatural being in seven days in science classes is a dumb idea.

8:14 p.m.: Bee tells the crowd he has opposed vouchers his entire career. He says that public money comes with strings that private schools won't like and voucher programs drain money from the public schools.

Giffords says she opposes vouchers and brings some smack, pointing out that Bee supported a pilot voucher program for foster and special-needs children as part of a budget deal in 2006.

Bee says he only supported the vouchers as part of a deal to expand all-day kindergarten.

8:21 p.m.: The candidates are asked about the schools that their children attend. Giffords talks about her step-children, who attend schools in Houston, Texas.

Bee explains that his kids go to school at home with the Arizona Virtual Academy, an online distance-learning program. "We've done a little bit of non-traditional education," he says. He adds that "our kids are just fabulous ballerinas."

Giffords uses her rebuttal time to mention that her kids "are fabulous, too!"

8:27 p.m.: During a question on whether private contractors should be used by school districts for food or janitorial service, Bee lays into Giffords for voting against a proposal that would have required background checks on school employees.

Giffords says that vote was the result of a Republican Party strategy to put forward procedural motions "that are these kinds of gimmicky attempts to try to kill the bill, but in the meantime they'll put something in there like 'terrorism' or 'illegal immigration' or trying to help sex offenders--they take the most egregious issue out there, they bundle it in a ... procedural motion and of course you don't vote for it because you don't want to kill the bill and then--surprise, surprise--election year comes up and every single vulnerable Democrat is attacked with the same attack across the country."

Bee replies: "Voting is important. Sometimes they are difficult votes. But you have to stand up for what you believe." Unless you are voting for a voucher program that you oppose, of course.

8:32 p.m.: The candidates are asked where they will find the money to increase education funding. Bee cites the importance of having a strong economy in Arizona, while Giffords uses the opportunity to talk about why she ended up supporting the financial-sector bailout bill.

Bee complains that Giffords wants to raise taxes on people earning more than $250,000, which will hurt many struggling people.

8:40 p.m.: The candidates talk about whether there should be national nutritional standards. Really. Giffords turns it into a soapbox to complain that Bee didn't support expanding healthcare coverage for kids. Bee says he opposes the legislation because it took prescription-drug coverage from seniors. He says he would have negotiated a better deal.

8:55 p.m.: Closing statements! Bee promises to continue to fight for education programs if he's elected to Congress. Giffords promises to continue to fight for education programs if she's re-elected to Congress.

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