The two Democrats vying to be Tennessee's next governor made another pitch Tuesday to expand pre-K education.
That's even though recent research from Vanderbilt University has led some communities, including Nashville, to hit pause on expansion plans.
Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and West Tennessee Rep. Craig Fitzhugh separately endorsed spreading pre-kindergarten programs during a gubernatorial forum at Vanderbilt sponsored by the Business Roundtable. Both candidates have been longtime supporters of pre-K.
Before he left the mayor's office in 2015, Dean set a goal of making pre-kindergarten available to every 4-year-old in the city. On Tuesday, he didn't commit to offering pre-K to that extent statewide, but he said he would like to see expansion continue.
"You talk to educators and you read most of the material on this, there's a strong correlation between pre-K and later success," he said.
That assumption has been called into question, however.
Days after Dean's second term expired, Vanderbilt released a study that showed many of the benefits of pre-K fade by third grade. They concluded that having high quality programs may be more important than having a lot of them.
That's led Nashville to slow pre-K expansion.
Yet Fitzhugh, also remains a fan. Asked what he thought Tennessee should do to enhance K-12 education, he advised focusing on the years before a child enrolls elementary school.
"Start young. Pre-K. I think pre-K is important and should be continued, should be enlarged," he said.
Fitzhugh said the goal ought to be making sure every Tennessee schoolchild is a capable reader by third grade, and the best way to achieve that is to get students going as early as possible.
Harwell Explains Gas Tax Vote
Though they said little about pre-K, Republicans also advised expanding education opportunities. Like their Democratic opponents, several called for upgrading the state's technology centers.
The forum was also notable in that House Speaker Beth Harwell gave what appeared to be her fullest explanation to date as to why she opposed legislation last spring to raise Tennessee's gas tax. Harwell said she's concerned Tennessee hasn't come up with a good, long-term strategy for how it's going to pay for roads.
Citing recent predictions, Harwell said she used to think that electric, driverless cars would be something her children would eventually see. Now, she believes the technology is just over the horizon. And with that in mind, she says, it no longer makes sense to pay for new roads by raising the tax on gasoline.
"So I thought we needed to look for a reliable source of income for our infrastructure going forward. A new dedicated source of revenue," she said.
She suggested diverting sales taxes levied on automobile purchases to the highway fund. That idea was rejected during the debate over the gas tax, and Harwell said she was willing to accept that outcome to clear the way for some additional road funding.
But, she added, finding new sources of funding for roads is something she would pursue if elected governor.
Former Mt. Juliet Sen. Mae Beavers also spoke about the gas tax increase. Asked whether she remains a critic, she reiterated her pledge to repeal the hike. She said other tax revenues should've been used to pay for roads, and as governor, she would rely on fiscal prudence to keep taxes low while covering infrastructure.
Franklin businessman Bill Lee sidestepped the question of road funding. He pledged only to find a "win-win" solution.
Knoxville businessman Randy Boyd wasn't asked directly about it, though he later told reporters that he believes enhanced broadband service could ease the congestion on Tennessee roads.
Congressman Diane Black was in Washington and did not take part in the forum.