It was a classic Jim Hunt moment. Surrounded by bright-eyed students and the glare of TV cameras at a middle school here last month, the North Carolina governor repeated his challenge to the state’s 2,100 public schools: to be the best in the nation by the end of the decade.
No matter that he was within just three weeks of stepping down after his fourth term as the state’s chief executive. With all the glitz and gusto of a man on the campaign trail, Mr. Hunt was continuing to push his agenda for building on North Carolina’s school improvement efforts. For a man whose passion and persistence on school policy issues have made him one of the nation’s most influential “education governors,” abandoning the crusade was unthinkable.
So in a year in which a blizzard, a hurricane, and record flooding hobbled the state for months, and a contentious gubernatorial race stole headlines from the prolific newsmaker, the 63-year-old Democrat pounded away at the message that dominated his administration: “Education Is Our Future—It’s Everything.”
“He doesn’t know the meaning of the term ‘lame duck,’” Philip J. Kirk Jr., the chairman of the state board of education, said as the Jan. 5 end of Mr. Hunt’s tenure loomed.
“I’ve never seen anybody so focused, so committed, and so enthusiastic about one subject,” Mr. Kirk, a former Republican legislator and a Hunt appointee to the board, continued. “We would not have achieved the progress we have without the help of a lot of people ... but I have to give the main credit to the leadership of the governor, who has constantly pushed us to work to higher standards.”
James B. Hunt Jr.
|Position: Governor of North Carolina, 1977-85; 1993-2001.|
|Education: North Carolina State University, B.S. in agricultural education, 1959; M.S. in agricultural economics, 1962; University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, law degree, 1964.|
|Current Service: Founding chairman, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards; chairman, National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education; co-chairman, National Commission on Asia in the Schools; member, National Education Goals Panel.|
|Other Experience: Economic adviser in Nepal, Ford Foundation, 1964-1966; Lt. Governor of North Carolina, 1973-1977; Carnegie Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, 1986; chairman, Education Commission of the States’ Task Force on Education and the Economy, 1983; chairman, National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, 1996.|
|Personal: Married with four grown children.|
Not all observers have appreciated Mr. Hunt’s near-singular focus on education, which they suggest has come at the expense of other important areas of state government. But it is precisely that focus, and the bipartisan support for the issue he built with state legislators, that are credited with bolstering achievement among North Carolina’s 1.3 million students.
Dramatic gains on national assessments and other achievement measures have moved North Carolina from the bottom on state rankings to about average over the past several years. The state’s standards and accountability system, which Mr. Hunt campaigned for in the mid-1990s, has been regarded as a model for other states. The state has poured millions of dollars into recruiting and retaining teachers.
And Mr. Hunt’s trademark early-childhood program, Smart Start, has inspired similar programs around the country.
“He has been absolutely committed to education from day one,” said Marc S. Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington-based nonprofit group that helps design standards-based education and training systems.
Mr. Tucker puts Mr. Hunt in the same category as Richard W. Riley, President Clinton, and Lamar Alexander, who as the governors of South Carolina, Arkansas, and Tennessee, respectively, spearheaded education reform in the 1980s.
“It is one thing for [scholars and researchers] to formulate ideas about education reform,” Mr. Tucker said. “It is at least as important for people in political power to stake their careers on these ideas. These guys made things happen.”
Longevity and Intensity
Having held the state’s highest office for 16 of the past 23 years has given Mr. Hunt an advantage over most other state leaders when it comes to leaving an imprint on schools. But it has also been his persistence in pushing education as the state’ s first priority that has yielded success, many observers say.
“By a combination of longevity and intensity, Jim Hunt has defined and redefined what it means to be an education governor,” said Mark D. Musick, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.
Mr. Hunt’s education agenda was nearly three decades in the making. As lieutenant governor in the early 1970s, he was instrumental in making North Carolina the first state to offer universal kindergarten. As the state’s first two-term governor from 1977 to 1985, he pushed for statewide testing of students, a primary-grades reading program, and a drastic increase in state funding for school districts.
It was during that era that he also began to make his mark on the national front.
By the late 1970s, the agrarian culture in which James B. Hunt Jr. grew up—the son of a Greensboro soil conservationist and a schoolteacher—was being eclipsed by high- tech industries and swelling urban areas. In response, he started painting education as an economic imperative.
As the chairman of the Education Commission of the States in the early 1980s, Mr. Hunt urged the Denver-based organization to study the impact of education on the economy. He headed the resulting Task Force on Education and the Economy, which released its eight- point plan for states to improve teaching and learning in June 1983, just two months after A Nation at Risk sparked a new era in education reform.
Still not satisfied, Mr. Hunt urged the Carnegie Corporation of New York to further study education’s relationship with the economy. Carnegie agreed, creating the Task Force on Teaching as a Profession, for which Mr. Tucker served as executive director and Mr. Hunt served as a panel member. The task force issued an influential report, “A Nation Prepared: Teachers for the 21st Century,” in 1986.
That report recommended, among other measures, that a national board be established to promote advanced teacher certification. Mr. Hunt became the first chairman of that board, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which was created in 1987.
Meanwhile, Mr. Hunt’s spirited attempt in 1984 to unseat U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms failed, and he went into private law practice as he plotted his comeback. All the while he continued to work on education issues.
He won a third election as governor in 1992 on the promise of improving public education. Over the past eight years, Mr. Hunt focused more sharply on education, this time building more support among teachers and business leaders, two constituencies that helped give him the political clout to push a more aggressive, and costly, improvement plan.
“During the first two terms, I was marching on the mansion, but during the second two terms, I was sitting in the mansion,” said John I. Wilson, the executive director of the National Education Association, who until recently headed the affiliated North Carolina Association of Educators. Mr. Wilson credits the governor for pushing higher teacher pay and incentives for teachers to undergo the rigorous national-certification process.
Support from teachers was critical to the enactment of the state’s highly touted accountability system, known as the ABCs of Public Education program. Now in its fourth year, the program provides rewards and penalties to teachers and schools according to students’ improvement, or lack of progress, on state tests.
In pushing for that accountability system, as well as various teacher-quality initiatives that have played prominent roles in the state’s improvement strategy, Mr. Hunt shares the credit with other state leaders, many North Carolina education watchers say.
Jay Robinson, the late chairman of the state school board who oversaw a historic desegregation initiative as the superintendent of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg public schools in the 1970s, was to many observers the unsung hero of the ABCs program. And many state legislators worked across party lines to craft and pay for both that program and several costly teacher-quality efforts.
But Mr. Hunt was always in the forefront.
“He certainly was an activist governor ... and a change agent,” said Farrel Guillory, a longtime newspaper columnist who is writing a biography of Mr. Hunt. “He figured out how to make things happen at a time when the South and his own state were becoming more Republican.”
Some North Carolinians remain unconvinced of Mr. Hunt’s accomplishments. Even his harshest critics acknowledge Mr. Hunt’s laser-like focus on education, but they question the strength of his legacy. They paint him instead as a public relations master who took credit for progress that began under previous administrations, but took off during the recent wave of prosperity.
“Governor Hunt’s tenure is best described as really long and inconclusive,” said John Hood, the president of the John Locke Foundation, a Raleigh-based research organization that supports private school vouchers.
Moreover, student achievement still has a long way to go, Mr. Hood said, and recent gains have yet to be linked to the fledgling accountability plan.
“To his credit, he set a few specific priorities and stuck with them,” Mr. Hood said. “But Governor Hunt was also a very lucky person. His timing was exactly right.”
Those priorities have become the stuff of legend here in Raleigh, where Mr. Hunt’s 10-point list of key issues is posted in state administrative offices and carried in the pockets of staff members. Education-related issues dominate the list.
Critics lament that issues not on the roster, such as mental health and the environment, have been all but ignored in the drive for better schools. But in those areas that made the list, many observers say the governor has something to show.
“He gets done what is on his priority list,” said John N. Dornan, the executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, a Raleigh- based research organization. “On those things, he is unrelenting.”
Mr. Hunt’s Smart Start initiative, for example, a public-private partnership that provides child care and health care for infants and preschoolers, has thrived since it was introduced in 1993. This past fall, the Carnegie Corporation, which appointed Mr. Hunt to its board of trustees last year, provided a $500,000 grant to help other states establish similar programs.
“Jim Hunt has been a true friend of children, and he’s been committed to improving the education and quality of life for all children, not only in North Carolina, but also in this nation,” said Richard W. Riley, who will step down this month after eight years as the U.S. secretary of education.
That sentiment is widespread among state lawmakers and educators in North Carolina, and often crosses party lines.
“As a Republican, I don’t cry when a very strong Democratic leader steps aside ... [but] all in all, I have got to give him a lot of credit for the focus he put on public school education,” said Sen. Hamilton C. Horton Jr., a Republican who sits on the education committee. “He didn’t bat a thousand, but politics is the art of what’s possible.”
In Mr. Hunt’s view, it seems, almost anything is possible, or, at least, worth shooting for. Over the past year, he has been charting a course for continued school improvement over the next decade, complete with lofty goals and declarations that North Carolina is on its way toward leading the nation in education. His successor, Democrat Michael F. Easley, has said he supports those ideas.
“The progress we’ve made makes me confident we can be first in America by 2010,” said Mr. Hunt, who has joked about another potential run for governor in four years, when he is next eligible. “I’m driving down every stake I can to build on this. I am very pleased, but not satisfied.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Dean of Education Governors Departs