Democratic challenger Linda Coleman repeatedly attempted Tuesday night to paint a dismal picture of public education in North Carolina, but Republican Lt. Gov. Dan Forest countered with a list of Republican spending increases and expanded school choice options that he said put the state on the right track.

The candidates squared off in an hour-long debate at Barton College sponsored in part by the North Carolina Institute for Political Leadership and Wilson Chamber of Commerce as the first of three “Hometown Debates.” The event will be shown at 9 tonight on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Channel.

Debates involving the Democratic and Republican nominees for attorney general and state treasurer will take place on the next two Tuesdays, Sept. 20 and 27, respectively.

Coleman and Forest cited contrasting positions on a range of topics, with the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program for low-income K-12 students as one example. This fall’s contest is a rematch of the 2012 election campaign, which Forest won by roughly 6,000 votes.

“The parent should have the choice for the education of their student. The government should not be the decider” in forcing students to remain in public schools that have been failing for decades, Forest said.

“Why would we not give the poorest students, the poorest parents in the state of North Carolina, an opportunity to take out an opportunity scholarship, a voucher if you will, and give it to a private school” if that is where a child will get an excellent education, Forest said.

Coleman, a former classroom teacher and state legislator, said she believes “education really ought to be free,” and parents should be able to send their children to whatever school they want, “but not with tax dollars.”

She said some religious schools accepting voucher students are allowed to discriminate, citing one in Mecklenburg County that refused admission to LGBT students.

Coleman claimed public education lost more than $1 billion in funding in the last four years, and as a result schools lack textbooks, teacher assistants, school resource officers, and nurses.

Forest said under Republican leadership K-12 spending actually went up $2 billion, and the state now is spending 13 percent more than it ever has, including tripling the amount spent on textbooks. Starting and average teacher pay has increased, and average teacher compensation is $67,500 annually.

Democrats cut $1.25 billion from education funding in 2010, the year Republicans were voted into the majority, he said. Democrats cut teacher pay, froze salary step increases, and eliminated 4,200 teachers.

Coleman said the 2008 recession led to a $4 billion budget deficit and forced the Democrats’ education cuts. Republicans have not kept education spending up to the level of the inflation rate, she charged.

The candidates also differed on the advent of a pilot program for two online charter schools, which got D grades overall.

Forest said there is a waiting list for the online virtual charter schools, which meet as many as 40 identified student needs. Acknowledging the pilot schools’ initial low performance, he asked when the state would shut down all of the traditional public schools that have been failing for decades.

Coleman said it is unreasonable to think “any of these schools are going to be successful,” adding, “We’re siphoning off [money] from the public school system” in an attempt to privatize it.

When she was in the General Assembly, Democrats sealed the cap at 100 charter schools, which need accountability and regulation, she said.

Forest reminded her that charter schools are public schools, and do have accountability measures. They can be closed for performance failures, while the response to a failing traditional school is to “throw more money at it.”

He and other Republicans deserve to be elected, Forest said, because they fixed a $3 billion budget deficit, didn’t raise taxes, cut the sales tax by $1.5 billion, the income tax by $1.5 billion, cut total taxes $4.5 billion, paid back a $2.3 billion debt to the federal government in unemployment insurance while putting $2 billion away in unemployment insurance, added $1.5 billion to the rainy day fund, created 300,000 new jobs, and cut the unemployment rate in half.

Coleman said Democrats would do more than shore up education. “We have to have a sustainable environment,” and clean water, punish polluters, create clean, renewable sources of energy, and pursue economic development.

The state needs to bring back “those support policies” like the earned income tax credit and child care tax credit, she said, and “we need[ed] to expand Medicaid yesterday.” That would help 500,000 people get health insurance, create 40,000 jobs by 2020, and pump $21 billion from the federal government into the state.

Forest said the Medicaid system the GOP inherited in 2013 was $2 billion in the hole, and subsequent reforms have resulted in a $300 million surplus. Ohio expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act without fixing it, he said, and in its first year the state budget deficit was $2.7 billion and rising, now approaching $8 billion.

Forest said certificate-of-need reform is needed, but it’s just a small part of the health care system dysfunctions caused by Obamacare.

Hospitals and doctors have been at odds over removing the CON barriers to doctors opening facilities and purchasing equipment for decades, and the only way to resolve the dispute is to require all parties to negotiate policies that are best for consumers, not their own interests, Forest said.

“We need a certificate-of-need law to have some type of control” over costs, said Coleman, who praised the Affordable Care Act as necessary.

Debate panelists asked three questions about House Bill 2, and the state’s transgender bathroom law took up nearly a third of the debate time.

“H.B. 2 absolutely should be repealed,” Coleman said, claiming it has cost the state millions, if not billions of dollars in lost revenue from withdrawal of the NBA All-Star game and seven NCAA championship events. “We have lost our reputation as well.”

Passage of the law “is making North Carolina a test laboratory for state-sponsored discrimination,” Coleman said.

Forest asked how many basketball games are worth a woman being assaulted by a man in a women’s bathroom, or a young girl having to shower next to a man. “What’s the price tag we’re going to put on that?”

Charlotte City Council “was trying to create a solution to a problem that didn’t exist,” and sought to conduct “a radical sexual revolution experiment” that its lawyers, the state’s lawyers, and Gov. Pat McCrory warned it against because it was overreaching its authority.

The law did not change anything in North Carolina, he said, it restored the status quo that existed before February 2016, when Charlotte passed its ordinance.

On the state’s law requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls, Forest said “it was struck down by a single liberal judge” despite the fact that 33 states have some form of voter ID, and the “vast majority of citizens think it’s very reasonable.”

Coleman said the voter ID mandate “was a bad, monstrous bill. It has denied participation in democracy,” particularly for people of color.

The candidates had differing views on a federal three-judge panel that struck down the state’s congressional districts, and whether an impartial redistricting commission should be created to avoid future legal entanglements.

“There is no such thing as somebody who’s going to look at this thing and not be biased in some way,” not even a judge, Forest said. “The Democrats weren’t clamoring for this when they were in charge,” creating gerrymandered congressional districts that looked like a can of worms, Forest said.

“The panel struck down the districts because they were unconstitutional,” Coleman said. Republicans “did packing, and stacking, and everything else they could do to ensure their election year after year after year.” She said a judicial panel is the only “fair and impartial” body that can decide if districts are constitutional.