Democratic state House candidates Steve Farley and Bruce Wheeler want voters to send them to Phoenix as a team, to try to fix state's abysmal public-education system, which they say is the first and most important step to creating revenue and jobs.

Farley, a two-term incumbent, and Wheeler, a former two-term city councilman who served in the legislature decades ago, are taking on Republican Ken Smalley in this north-central district that has a decided Democratic tilt, with 44.5 percent of voters registered Democrat to 26.5 percent Republican. But with 29 percent independents, no seat is guaranteed.

Fixing the state's struggling economy has become the central issue of debate between the two sides.

While Farley and Wheeler emphasize a better education system as the path to better jobs, Smalley, a small-business owner, argues the state needs to lower property taxes, business real-estate taxes and business income taxes to be competitive with neighboring states.

Wheeler said investing in public schools and the state's university system will create an employable work force and attract good businesses and jobs to the state. He uses Tucson's optics industry as an example of how investing in the state's universities can fuel economic development.

"We incentivized optics research for ten years at the university, and now Tucson is the optics capital of the world," he said. "The UA is both an educational institution and an economic engine."

Farley, the policy leader for the House Democratic Caucus, said money to improve K-12 education and fund research at the university system can be found in the $10 billion in corporate tax exemptions the Republican-controlled legislature has passed into law.

Smalley said he is the only candidate with job-creating experience to help boost the economy. He argues that Arizona government can be made more efficient and effective through additional cuts, which currently are restricted by mandates. In addition, he proposes looking to other states for ideas of how to consolidate state services and redesign the state prison system.

Smalley's fix for education focuses on redesigning the system rather than increasing funding. He said the state should focus on performance-based compensation programs and incentives to redistribute top -performing teachers into underperforming schools. Furthermore, he has said, the state's charter-school system, a cheaper and often more effective alternative to public schooling, should be allowed to flourish.

Ken Smalley

Party: Republican

Age: 65

Occupation: Retired

Education: MBA, USC

Past elected public offices: None

Civic activities: Junior Achievement volunteer. Financial adviser and treasurer of an educational foundation-Epsilon Epsilon. Advisor for startup businesses.

Top endorsements: None listed

Top priority: I am the only candidate with job-creating experience to boost our economy.

Web address: kensmalleyforrep.com/

Steve Farley

Party: Democrat

Age: 47

Occupation: Artist, owner, Steve Farley Design.

Education: BA, political science, Williams College, 1985

Past elected public offices: State representative, 2007-present

Civic activities: Creator, Broadway underpass murals. Founder, Tucsonans for Sensible Transportation. Board member, Blenman Elm Neighborhood Association

Top endorsements: Arizona Education Association. Metropolitan Tucson Chamber of Commerce. Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona

Top priority: Create good jobs and restore funding to our education system.

Web address: friendsofarley.com/

Bruce Wheeler

Party: Democrat

Age: 62

Occupation: Freelance photojournalist, retired since 2006

Education: Master's in business administration, University of Phoenix

Past elected public offices: Tucson City Council, 1987-95; AZ House, 1975-77

Civic activities: Volunteer for Love of Reading activities. Teaches photography to middle-school students. Volunteer weekend English teacher for young adults.

Top endorsements: Arizona Education Association, Professional Fire Fighters of Arizona, Planned Parenthood

Top priority: To improve the quality of public education, which is the foundation of a vibrant economy.

Webaddress: www.wheeler 2010.com/wheeler2010/

Will Ferguson is a University of Arizona journalism student apprenticing at the Star. Contact him at 573-4142 or at starapprentice@azstarnet.com