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Like Gov. Clinton, N.C.'s Hunt Trains Spotlight on Schools

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When Bill Clinton assumes the Presidency next month, another politician who also earned the title "education governor'' back before it became shopworn from overuse will be entering high office as well.

The parallels between the President-elect and James B. Hunt Jr., who was elected to a third term as Governor of North Carolina last month after an eight-year hiatus, are striking.

Both men are centrist Democrats with a knack for getting elected in a conservative Southern state. Indeed, some North Carolina pundits have suggested that Mr. Hunt might have been the one heading for the White House, if he had not lost a bruising Senate campaign in 1984.

But nowhere are the similarities between the two leaders more evident than in the area of education.

Both brought education reform to their states during the first wave of state school-improvement efforts in the early 1980's. Both served as the chairman of the Education Commission of the States, gaining national attention for their prominent roles in education.

And both shared an underlying philosophy about the way to achieve prosperity for their states.

"They would be among the first governors to see that school reform is an economic strategy as well as an educational strategy,'' a connection that has now become "a national credo,'' John N. Dornan, the president of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, wrote recently.

Now, observers expect, both officeholders will be in a position to advance this philosophy, separately and in tandem.

"My number-one issue is economic development,'' Mr. Hunt said in a recent interview. "Education is economic development.''

Back in the late 1970's and early 1980's, Mr. Hunt laid the groundwork for "investing in the future'' by promoting such projects as the North Carolina School for Science and Mathematics and by fostering the rise of the Research Triangle and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Now, he returns to mount what he calls his "crusade for public education.''

Mr. Hunt is already planning to go on the road, holding town meetings in every county and sharing ideas with citizens at the grassroots level.

"Just like in this country when Bill Clinton becomes President, I think everybody is excited about a guy who is willing to roll up his sleeves and pitch in; I think that same thing is going to happen with Jim Hunt coming in as Governor,'' said A. Craig Phillips, who was the state superintendent of public instruction during Mr. Hunt's previous two terms.

Ambitious Plans Stalled

In the past decade and a half, North Carolina has introduced some of the most ambitious and innovative education reforms in the nation, many of them under Mr. Hunt.

It became the first state to provide all-day kindergarten in its public schools. It put a teaching assistant in every 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-grade classroom.

It was the first state to open an academy for gifted mathematics and science students, and the first to open a center where outstanding teachers can spend a week in an environment devoted to creative learning and renewal.

It reduced class sizes, raised teachers' salaries, and this summer mandated site-based management statewide.

Despite the initiatives, though, the state continues to languish near the bottom on traditional standards of student achievement.

North Carolina ranked fourth from last on the verbal portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1992, and had the seventh-highest dropout rate, 13.2 percent, in 1991.

On the National Assessment of Educational Progress math trial in 1990, 31 of the 37 participating states had higher average performances.

There have been some signs of progress, including a rise in S.A.T. scores. But state educators and decisionmakers remain frustrated by the slow pace of improvement.

"Our success stories are too isolated,'' said Gene Causby, the executive director of the North Carolina School Boards Association. "We've not had the kind of general vast improvement that we need and hope for.''

'Stop-and-Start Reform'

Some analysts blame poverty and the rural nature of the state. But others cite a lack of leadership and a penchant for grasping at new reform strategies before the old ones have had a chance to take effect--a tendency that some in the state like to call "the education initiative of the year.''

"We're a classic example of stop-and-start political reform,'' Mr. Dornan said. "I think it's fair to say that the whole educational community is hoping that Hunt's return will signal, if nothing else, consistent direction for four years.''

Two major initiatives that the state embarked on in the 1980's have stalled. The Basic Education Program, which was conceived during Mr. Hunt's second term as a way of equalizing course offerings, class sizes, and staffing levels through the state, has not been fully funded.

Nor has the School Improvement and Accountability Act, which was supposed to shift responsibilty and accountability to the local level, proceeded as envisioned. The legislature eventually permitted school districts to scrap a performance-based salary structure authorized by the law, for example, in favor of across-the-board pay hikes.

Mr. Hunt said he is committed to moving ahead as well as improving both measures. "We need to settle down, pull everything together,'' he said.

'Abiding Belief in Education'

Mr. Hunt's associates attribute his keen interest in education in part to its role in his own rise from modest beginnings to the state's highest office.

"Because of education, he succeeded individually, and when he got into a position of power, he remembered that,'' Mr. Phillips said.

Mr. Hunt has "a genuine abiding belief in education as the way in which you move a country and a state ahead,'' the former schools chief added.

Mr. Hunt's dedication to education runs deeper than making and promoting policy. During his first two terms as Governor, he volunteered on a regular basis in the public schools.

After leaving office, he periodically accompanied his wife, Carolyn, to meetings when she served on the Wilson County school board.

"I got a view right down at the grassroots level of what's going on in the schools, what tough management problems we have, and how difficult it is to bring about changes at the local level where all of these reform ideas have to happen,'' Mr. Hunt said.

Since 1987, he served as chairman of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Board colleagues say that he has thrown himself into the panel's efforts to develop a national system for assessing and certifying highly skilled teachers, and that the experience has brought him an even broader perspective on education.

"Governor Hunt just lives it and breaths it,'' Mr. Dornan said. "He was one of the best salesmen for his programs I have ever seen. He was also able to bring people together.''

Tugged in Different Directions

The broad coalition that Mr. Hunt put together in his most recent campaign, which resulted in an easy victory last month over Lieut. Gov. James C. Gardner, illustrates his ability to bring people together.

"He received quite a bit of support from the business community, and he got a lot of Republican support because of his positions on economic development,'' said Phillip Kirk, the president of the North Carolina Citizens for Business and Industry.

At the same time, Mr. Hunt was endorsed by the North Carolina Association of Educators.

Still, one problem with Mr. Hunt's inclusive politics is that it subjects him to conflicting pressures, which some say he has not always handled well.

"He might feel he is being tugged at from several different directions,'' Mr. Kirk said, "but that is one of the challenges of being governor.''

During his first term in office, sources said, Mr. Hunt was willing to stand up to special-interest groups, such as the N.C.A.E. But during his second term, as he prepared for his 1984 challenge to Sen. Jesse Helms, Mr. Hunt was seen by some as trying to please everyone.

"In the first term we felt that he did what he thought was best and let that shoe fall where it would as far as the special interests were concerned, us included,'' Mr. Causby of the school boards association said. "He did not do well with that in his second term. I think he did cater more to special interests.''

Quantum Leap

Looking ahead to his new term, Mr. Hunt said he would put his initial focus on the area of early-childhood education.

Mr. Hunt proposes to build a network of state, business, religious, and secular child-care providers to create a system of affordable and sound day care and early-childhood education.

"The main problem with schools in our state and across the country today is the unfortunate things that happen to children before they come to school,'' Mr. Hunt said.

"If we can get this early-childhood system in place,'' he added, "we will have a quantum leap on how kids do on S.A.T. scores and other measures.''

Other items on his education agenda include requiring high school seniors to pass an exit examination; expanding the role of local districts by reducing the number of state funding categories; and raising teacher salaries.

Mr. Hunt said the supplemental budget he will submit early in his term will recommend "hundreds of millions'' in spending cuts in other areas that he hopes will free up money for education. "My approach is not to go in and say let's spend more; let's make the whole government work better and make it more efficient,'' he explained.

But whether that route will provide ample funding is uncertain.

"We have the same high expectation for a new administration [in Raleigh as the nation does in Washington] and little reason to believe there is a silver lining on the revenue side,'' Mr. Dornan said. "That is going to be the most vexing problem the next administration faces.''

Where Mr. Hunt may have to spend most of his political capital, though, is on transforming the governance structure. He wants the state schools chief to become an appointed, rather than an elected, official, and North Carolina to join all the other states in giving its governor veto power over legislation.

Independent Legislature

Persuading the legislature to make those changes, however, will not be easy.

Observers predict that the new Governor will be greeted by a friendly yet independent body of lawmakers. With heavy Democratic majorities in both chambers, the legislature during the past eight years was frequently at odds with the outgoing Republican Governor, James G. Martin, over education and other issues.

"The legislature has been there all of that time and has not been waiting to initiate and boldly move into school reform and put our money where our mouth is,'' said Rep. Anne C. Barnes, the chairwoman of the House education committee.

"Governor Hunt had enormous influence in the legislature when he was there before,'' Ms. Barnes said. "It might turn out he may have that enormous influence again.''

"But,'' she added, "he will be dealing with a different legislature than before that has developed, stepped forward, and assumed leadership.''

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