Education has been a state priority and topic of significant debate for decades, including the 2013 North Carolina General Assembly session. In order to answer some of the pressing questions about the best direction for North Carolina in education, WhichWayNC sat down with former Gov. Jim Hunt, who served for four terms. This story was edited for length.
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.
WWNC: There’s been a significant focus on transitioning to digital learning in schools. Do you think that it’s important to start including digital learning?
JH: Absolutely. I really do think it’s important. It’s critical. But it’s still — you still got to have good teachers, and they need to be digitally proficient, and they’ve got to have the facilities and the equipment and the technology. All that’s got to be paid for and put in place. But that’s a big, new development, and we’ve got places that are doing an excellent job – and that’s going to take big investments. We want to make it as efficient as we can, but we have to invest in it. We have to invest more in it. You know I want to do all we can for health care and for other things, but education is the most important thing we do, and it should get full investment, whatever it takes to have excellent schools, excellent teaching and learning we should do. That’s the way, by the way, you bring about economic growth and job creation. It isn’t just by cutting taxes. Taxes need to be competitive, but you get ahead by having the brightest people, the most creative people, the most innovative people. So we need to find ways to measure how we’re doing in teaching and in education better. We need to focus on putting more funding into things that will give us the biggest return like better teaching — the best teaching — but we also have to understand that investing in teaching, focusing on teaching, encouraging the best folks to go into teaching and stay in teaching is one of the most important things for us to do. I want to take this opportunity to say that I appreciate and applaud Gov. [Pat] McCrory’s focus on technology. I don’t know all the details of it, but that’s important and he has focused on that and I encourage him to keep doing that, but also we need a whole lot more focus I think from everybody — legislature, all of us in the local level on improving teaching and paying teachers very well so we can get and keep the best.
WWNC: Earlier this year, Gov. McCrory sat down with you to discuss education. What advice did you give him?
JH: We discussed many things. We discussed early childhood, Smart Start. We discussed how he’s going to organize his administration. He’s looking for a very good education advisor, top senior education advisor, and we talked about technology. We didn’t go into a lot of specifics, but I just encouraged him to spend a lot of his efforts on that and do a lot of visiting schools and asking for the opinions of teachers and other educators about what we need to do. So it was just a very general discussion.
WWNC: Tell me about the leadership program at the General Assembly that you take part in.
JH: It’s called the Jim Holshouser Legislative Retreat on Education. We bring in the best leaders, people with knowledge, who have done the best job around the country in different areas of education and get them to tell us what they’re doing. For example, a couple of years ago a lot of people were concerned that children were not learning to read in their earliest years. So when I was first elected governor, I put in a primary reading program that involved putting in a teacher assistant into every classroom grade one, two and three, and I think a lot of that has now been cut out unfortunately — mistake. But in any event, at this recent legislative event two years ago, we brought in from Georgia and Massachusetts, because we were learning – what we were hearing was a number of teachers did not know how to teach reading successfully. So we brought these people in who had put in programs to assure that teachers can teach reading successfully, and they focus on it and then they measure whether or not they can do it before they give them a teaching license.
WWNC: How do you plan to continue to support education in North Carolina, and what are your focus areas?
JH: I want to support the governor and the legislature and encourage them to keep their primary focus on education and to invest sufficient funds to do it. I want to, working with the Hunt Institute, to continue to put on the Holshouser legislative retreats and keep bringing the best information to the legislature and to the Hunt Institute. One of the things I’ve learned that has occurred more strongly to me in the last 10 or 15 years is that we haven’t focused enough on the principals. Good teachers won’t teach for bad principals. They may start, they may take that job when they graduate and they need a job. They take some job. You’ve got to have a job, but if that’s not a good principal. If that person isn’t knowledgeable, caring, sensitive, supportive, after a year, they go somewhere else. They get a better job. So poor, ineffective principals are a bad thing, and we need to make sure that all of our principals are well-trained, well-prepared, they have the right kind of leadership ability and they treat teachers – they hold teachers up and support them and help them in every way that we can, that they can. So, I’m going to keep working with that and helping education in every way that I can and never give up and never quit.
This story was reported as an assignment for the JOMC 253 Reporting class.