The two major party candidates for governor highlighted starkly different visions for Minnesota in a debate that saw them clash over how best to help struggling schools and students.

The main subject of the forum sponsored by the TwinWest Chamber of Commerce in Plymouth was Minnesota’s perpetual shortage of skilled workers. Mostly maintaining the congenial tone of their debates so far, Republican Jeff Johnson and DFLer Tim Walz agreed that a higher quality education for more students is the best path to that but strongly differed on how to get there.

Minnesota continues to suffer from one of the largest gaps in the nation in educational attainment between white and nonwhite students, leaving thousands of children of color unprepared for the workforce.

“This is one of the most significant moral issues we have in Minnesota today,” said Johnson, a Hennepin County commissioner in his third term. “We have had one of the worst achievement gaps in our education system for 40 years in Minnesota, and nothing has gotten better. We’ve spent a lot of money, but nothing has gotten better.”

Walz, who was a high school teacher before his election to Congress in 2006, relayed his own experience in the classroom.

“If a child comes to school to my geography class and they slept in a car the night before or they come hungry or with a toothache that can’t be addressed because they have no insurance, that child will not learn.”

Johnson wants to give vouchers so students from impoverished families can choose a private school. He would also push to provide parents with more control over their child’s school, including changing the administration or turning it into a charter school. Johnson also said schools should be able to fire bad teachers more easily by taking on the teachers union.

Walz disagreed. “Can we get rid of bad teachers? We certainly can, but here’s what I’m here to tell you: You’re not going to fire your way to good schools. You’re going to hire your way to good schools.”

Walz would lower class sizes, offer preschool to every child and focus on hiring teachers who come from the communities in which he or she is teaching.

With less than seven weeks until Election Day, the candidates are moving into the heat of the campaign season even as temperatures fall, with both candidates needing to reach voters just now tuning into a race that will determine the direction of state government for at least four years.

Johnson said the subject of the debate — the shortage of skilled workers — was apt. “This comes up more than anything else, even more than regulations and taxes” he said of his travels around the state.

Minnesota’s unemployment rate is nearing its lowest ever, even as employers added 20,600 jobs in May and June alone. If the unemployment rate continues to fall, the state’s labor force — about 3 million Minnesotans — would be able to grow only if more people move to Minnesota, or if people who haven’t been looking for jobs seek them out.

While the mood at the forum was mostly convivial, Johnson nevertheless laid out strong contrasts in their views about a range of issues that the next governor will have to contend with.

“We have very, very divergent views about the future of Minnesota and the future of Minnesotans,” Johnson said. “I believe Minnesotans and Minnesota businesses are overtaxed, and Tim Walz believes we are undertaxed,” he said, before reciting a litany of his other issues, including free market health care, immigration enforcement and a work requirement for welfare — all of which separate him from Walz.

Walz, who spent more than a year appealing to the most progressive voices in his party during the DFL nominating contest, replied with a favorite joke: “You failed to tell them I’m going to take their puppies, too,” he said, drawing laughs from the crowd.

“Name calling, divisiveness, anger, all of that is not going to solve problems,” said Walz, whose congressional district spans across southern Minnesota. He turned to aspirational rhetoric about his biography and bringing Minnesotans together to solve problems.

“I wasn’t ever going to get into the Harvards. But I sure could get into a great state school and give me a skill set to live the life I wanted and the dream I wanted to dream,” Walz said. “That’s what Minnesota has been about.”

In addition to their different policy ideas, Walz and Johnson have markedly different styles. Johnson’s answers are as crisp as his well-ironed shirts, while Walz likes to meander like a geography teacher caught up in the wonders of a faraway archipelago.

To the delight of the crowd, the two candidates had another thing they agreed on: After Walz called Minnesota State University Mankato the “Harvard of the Midwest,” Johnson allowed that his teenage son is considering colleges, including the very same “Harvard of the Midwest.”