Education in Minnesota makes up nearly half of the state budget. The achievement gap between whites and minorities is among the highest in the nation. Minnesota has one of the lowest rates of participation in early education programs. Colleges in Minnesota are more expensive than in neighboring states.

Those are just a few reasons why education is perhaps the most compelling and confounding issue facing the candidates for governor. It challenges budgets, incites racial politics and inspires rhetoric over how we raise our children.

Which is why a forum Tuesday had such potential to start a good dialogue about the three R's. In many ways, it succeeded in shedding more light than heat, with thoughtful responses from the four candidates who showed up: Independence Party endorsee and runner-up Tom Horner and Robert Hahn, and unendorsed DFL challengers Mark Dayton and Matt Entenza.

They did their homework, avoided bullying and generally played well with others. They'd make a decent high school debate team.

The unfortunate thing is that the class presidents called in sick. The DFL's candidate, Margaret Anderson Kelliher, and Republican Tom Emmer both declined to attend, citing conflicts.

I know. It is a grand tradition for the major parties' anointed to pretend no other candidates exist. The common strategy is to avoid all public forums with substance (Kolacky Days? Be right there!) lest your weaknesses be revealed too early. So the candidates most likely to implode (Kelliher) and explode (Emmer), were absent.

But here's the deal. This is no ordinary election. All the people on the podium Tuesday are at least as capable as the endorsed candidates to run the state. Kelliher could easily lose the primary. Emmer is a niche candidate of the far right, and Horner could draw substantially from the center of both if the undecided begin to seek moderation. This baby is wide open.

We are facing a $6 billion deficit, and education is the largest single item in it. It's time for the major candidates to raise their hands once in a while.

Emmer's Web page is slightly more specific than Kelliher's on education (more choice, less bureaucracy). He acknowledges our system is falling behind other nations. It would have been enlightening to have him rebut Dayton, the only one to say bluntly that it's mostly about money.

"We have to put our money where our priorities are," said Dayton. "We have to raise taxes on rich people." The only other place where budget cuts have forced schools to consider four-day weeks, he said, "is rural Louisiana."

Hahn did a good job outlining a more conservative approach to "run schools more like a business." It would have been helpful to hear Kelliher respond to Hahn's contention that granting tenure to K-12 teachers gives them "a license to be lazy and ineffective."

But that task was left to Entenza, who said that "running around vilifying teachers and vilifying public schools" is not the way to helpful change.

Horner forcefully said that pursuing the current path of cuts would ensure that kids today will be "less prosperous and less educated than their parents, and that's appalling."

One educator who watched the forum was Carrie Asmus, an elementary guidance counselor for four elementary schools in St. Paul. Yes, four.

"I'm just concerned that they know our students have many issues when they come to school, and getting to them is crucial," said Asmus.

"In 16 years I've seen the level of poverty go up along with an accumulation of family issues" as programs were slashed. "It's not acceptable," she said.

Teachers will tell you that the students who show up and pay attention every day are the ones who succeed. Given the circumstances of this election, I would not be terribly surprised if one of the people who showed up Tuesday is our next governor. • 612-673-1702