For most of Thursday night's candidate forum, three Indian River County Republicans running for state House District 54 sounded awfully alike. In the end, though, one stood out, displaying depth, breadth and passion on solutions to key educational and societal issues.
Unlike her opponents, Erin Grall thoughtfully laid out problems caused by illiteracy and how to fix them. And unlike Dale Glading and Lange Sykes, Grall said solving such a major problem might not come free.
"Spending dollars now will save our state money in the future," said Grall, 38, a Vero Beach attorney, who narrowly lost a Republican primary race for state representative in 2010.
The fact is, Grall told a gathering at Sebastian River High School, more than 25 percent of 5-year-olds — even more in Indian River County — are not prepared for kindergarten. Much of the problem stems from a lack of adequate standards, accountability, teacher pay and professional development at many day-care centers and prekindergarten programs receiving government money.
She cited studies showing spending a dollar on a 4-year-old's education will save $300 by age 65.
"This is not a partisan issue," said Grall, whose education credentials include stints as past president of Childcare Resources of Indian River, chairing the United Way of Indian River County's community investment committee and serving on Indian River County's Children's Services Advisory Grant Review Subcommittee the past nine years.
In response to a question from Indian River County School Board member Charles Searcy, Grall said her first piece of legislation would focus on early childhood education. Among other efforts, she'd work with experts to create a system to measure and improve day-care and prekindergarten programs and ensure Florida's tax-supported early learning coalitions require quality results to fund such programs.
Sykes, 30, and the others praised the nonprofit Learning Alliance of Indian River County and its Moonshot Moment partnership with the School District. The Moonshot Moment's goal is 90 percent of third-graders reading at grade level by 2018.
But Sykes, a local businessman, offered more platitudes than specifics on legislation he'd propose. He said he'd work with local education leaders before devising legislation. His response seemed like a cop-out.
Glading, 56, who runs a prison ministry and other faith-based programs in the community, said he regularly sees firsthand the problems Grall cited. The average prisoner is 22 and isn't literate. Many of the young men he ministers to on Indian River County basketball courts have reading and writing issues. So many that Glading and his son have begun offering hourlong tutoring sessions before basketball games.
Without offering specifics, Glading said his first bill would relate to the breakdown of the family. He noted that 73 percent of African-American children are born to single parents and too many of those youngsters end up in jail.
The candidates agreed on a plethora of issues: allowing armed guards in schools, equitable funding for charter school students, cutting state mandates, giving local school boards more authority, the need for recess and too much high-stakes testing.
But Grall gave the best answer to a question on how schools should be graded. While Sykes said he supported a bill that would allow districts to use two tests and Glading offered the tired excuse that teachers are pressured to teach to the test, Grall cited the continued need for accountability.
"I believe in measurable outcomes anywhere we're investing money," she said, noting that one of Florida's ongoing problems is that it keeps changing benchmarks — so there's no way to adequately measure success.
A well-prepared Grall was the winner Thursday in the forum organized by the Indian River County Council PTA. Her experience with early education, and as the mother of two preschool children, showed.
Glading was second, bolstered by his experience working with students in the school of hard knocks. Sykes is far behind on the education issue.
Education is just one key issue in this race. Glading and Sykes will have other opportunities to show their expertise and leadership.