ANCHORAGE -

Candidates running to become Alaska’s next governor faced off Monday in a forum hosted by the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce, in the first of several debates leading up to Election Day on Nov. 4.

Education and resource development were two hot topics at the chamber’s Make it Monday lunch forum, a fast-paced event about an hour long. It was a chance for the candidates to introduce themselves, and touch on some key issues important to Alaskans.

Fresh from a gathering of the Legislature deemed the “education session” by many lawmakers, questions about how the state teaches students -- such as, “What benchmarks should be used to get Alaska students to be career and college-ready?” -- were high on Monday’s list.

All three of the candidates at the debate – Democrat Byron Mallott, independent Bill Walker and incumbent Republican Gov. Sean Parnell -- had their thoughts on the issue.

“It is not an ‘education session’ of the Alaska Legislature when you pass the education funding bill in the ninety-fourth or -fifth day of a 90-day session,” Mallott said.

“Let’s take those schools that are having (in) excess of 90 percent (graduation) rates, and let’s incorporate those into the mainstream education so there's plenty of things on the menu,” Walker said.

Parnell says improvements, like higher graduation rates, are proof of what is working.

“We removed barriers to graduation -- we did it just like they did this session,” Parnell said. “We've allowed kids to test out of classes where they can perform up to standards there.”

Education, however, was just one topic related to investing in Alaska's future. The other theme, an object of close attention for the chamber, was economic development -- and the effects of Parnell’s oil tax reforms passed last year, Senate Bill 21.

“Do you support the repeal of SB21 -- if so, what's your alternate plan?” candidates were asked.

For his part, Parnell says a repeal of the tax cuts in his bill would guarantee decline in the oil industry.

“I do not support repealing SB21; there are billions of dollars of investment coming into this state,” Parnell said.

Both of Parnell’s challengers, however, are in favor of a repeal. Walker says he preferred the previous tax regime -- Alaska’s Clear and Equitable Share, championed by former Gov. Sarah Palin.

“I would support the repeal; I think (SB)21 went too far,” Walker said. “I think there was a lot of good activity on the slope as a result of ACES -- if it hadn't been for ACES, we'd be Detroit today.”

Mallott says his questions about SB21 concern the circumstances under which it was created.

“The development and passage of Senate Bill 21, that was not articulated clearly,” Mallott said. “And so many Alaskans wonder about fairness involved, when their lives are going to be impacted.”

The candidates are also scheduled to answer questions from students from 11 Anchorage schools, in a Wednesday candidate forum at the Loussac Library from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. U.S. Senate candidates will also participate in the event, hosted by AARP.