What Must Jim Hunt Be Thinking?

He's the 'education governor' in a state that's crushing public education
N.C. Department of Cultural Resources

In early May, WhichWayNC — an online project of UNC Chapel Hill’s journalism school — published an interview with former Gov. Jim Hunt that, given present circumstances, is downright heartbreaking.

An excerpt:

WWNC: What progress has our state made in education over the last 20 years, and what are the challenges that remain?

JH: People say what we should be focusing on is how much students are learning. How do they learn? They’re taught, and now they use technology, but you have to have good teachers. Good education won’t occur, students won’t learn without good teachers. So we ought to be doing all that we can to improve teaching, to have better teachers, to have good conditions in which they could teach, enough time to teach, the tools to use in teaching, including all the new technologies and things of that sort. Gov. [Jim] Holshouser was a strong supporter of improving teacher pay. I think we got up to 27th or 28th in the country when he was there, and so in 1996, I’d heard that we had slipped in teacher pay, and so I ran on a platform of raising teacher pay in North Carolina to the national average. I said teachers are the most important people in our society, they work harder, they’re the most important people we have, and we ought to pay them well, and they ought to do well. We want to have the best teachers we can have. So I would say putting in early childhood, Smart Start, along with our fine kindergarten program, improving teacher pay and the reward on more excellent teaching by national board certified teachers. All of those things indicate over, say, 20 years from 1990 to 2010 or so were periods of great, great progress for North Carolina, but I’m afraid we may now be slipping back.

WWNC: How do you think the programs that you fought so hard to implement have survived since you left office?

JH: Well, Smart Start has been cut by 20 percent — the funding. I hope it will not be cut anymore, and I hope they’ll start increasing the funding for it. Teacher pay has been held steady — held flat — while other states have been going up. By the way, these teachers can move from state to state, and they do. We have begun, now, one hopeful thing that I’m proud of, and I give the Republicans credit for, some of them, some Democrats is this whole idea of doing more to measure the performance of the teachers. By the way, they have cut back on the amount of testing, which I decry. Testing is measuring student learning. We need to do it. We ought to do it in a fair way. We ought to do it in an effective way, and you can have too many tests but they’ve cut out 10 or 12 major tests from the schools, which I think has been a real mistake. But I would have to say the big thing that distresses me is the failure to continue to pay teachers well and to encourage them and to, by public comments, support them. You know our leaders ought to be praising teachers, encouraging them to do better — yes — figuring ways to encourage that to help make that happen, but we don’t ever want to be criticizing teachers and coming across as being, you know, ugly to them or not appreciating their wonderful work, and I’m hearing too much — not enough praise and support for teachers from some of our leaders.

More than anything, investment in public education vaulted the state of North Carolina from backwater to economic and cultural powerhouse, the shining star of the South, and perhaps more than anyone, Jim Hunt was responsible for it. During his four terms (1977-81, 1993-2001), he established a reading program for first through third grades, limited class sizes and pushed for the creation of Smart Start, among other educational initiatives. They earned him a nationwide reputation as a committed advocate for public education as the bedrock for a prosperous and dynamic state.

That’s what makes the strip-and-scrap job the General Assembly is doing on the state’s public schools an even bigger tragedy than it appears on its face. It’s just flat wrong in an absolute sense, but it’s a practical misstep as well: Nothing attracts innovation and industry, the very things the governor keeps saying the state is trying to invest in, like a well-educated workforce and good schools. Nothing repels them like poor ones.

And with the state’s proposed 2013-14 budget, we get the inevitable product of a legislature that’s become a wholly owned subsidiary of ALEC: school vouchers, for the first time in the state’s history. (Here’s some information, from The Center for Media and Democracy in Wisconsin, on the ALEC-driven nationwide voucher sweep, sources and particulars in the 12 other states, and the District of Columbia, that have instituted them. Here’s a handy state-by-state comparison from the National Conference on State Legislatures.)

There’s a bright spot, though: Surely this will open up entrepreneurial opportunities for developers of education software and tailored education plans, available to anyone willing and able to make their own generous investments. What must Jim Hunt, the “education governor” in an education-killing state, be thinking these days?

Categories: Poking the Hornet’s Nest