Education was star of the show Tuesday night as a small but energetic crowd gathered at the NAACP’s last political forum to hear candidates for Missouri representative and Senate seats make their final pledges this election season.
Mary Ratliff, president of Columbia’s NAACP branch, said school funding and quality of learning are issues of particular importance to African Americans.
“We’ve got to close the achievement gap,” she said, adding that affirmative action programs are just as crucial today as when they were 10 years ago.
“We’ve come a long way, but we’re still at the lower end of the economic spectrum,” Ratliff said.
Democrat Travis Ballenger, running for 24th District state representative, said the current state formula for public schools needs to be redrafted.
“Over 200 school districts are suing Missouri because of inadequate funding,” Ballenger said. “We need to go back to the drawing board for those issues.”
Sheila Plummer, a member of the Columbia NAACP who attended the event, said there aren’t enough pages in the newspaper to describe the faults of the current education system. She is discouraged by unrealistic promises tossed out by politicians in election years and resents calls for equity in education.
“Different populations have different needs,” said Plummer, a special educator for students ages 14 to 20.
“I work with children who will never function at their grade level,” she said, disappointed with the non-discerning rhetoric of the No Child Left Behind Act. “One size doesn’t fit all.”
Medical assistance programs
Public assistance programs such as Medicare and Medicaid also prompted discussion. Republican candidate for 23rd District state representative Dan Fischbach claimed that under the current system, Medicaid is covering too many people to serve well those who really need it.
“Currently, 20 percent of Missourians are receiving Medicaid,” Fischbach said, adding that there are families with incomes above $80,000 taking advantage of the program.
But many in the crowd didn’t seem convinced of those numbers. Neither was Fischbach’s opponent, Democratic incumbent Jeff Harris.
“People aren’t looking for a hand out, they’re looking for a hand up,” Harris said, blasting recent policy changes that cut 60,000 people off Medicaid.
The audience assembled in the Second Baptist Church was largely female, mostly African American and overwhelmingly Democratic — so much so that when Republican state representative hopeful Ed Robb bemoaned the absence of Republican representatives from Columbia, the crowd erupted in enthusiastic applause.
But the forum’s substance was an honest exchange of questions and ideas, not partisan attacks.
Plummer said the small, informal venue where the bulk of the discussion came from audience questions was conducive to good debate.
“I didn’t question for a moment that each of the candidates was completely sincere,” she said.