A model for dynamic public education

January 23, 2011

By James B. Hunt

I am delighted to learn of interest in Alabama to launch a nonprofit dedicated to improving public schools and sustaining economic development, and I am honored that the James B. Hunt Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy is being viewed as a model by former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley.

To know that we are influencing states and state leaders in a way that inspires them to replicate our efforts is rewarding and encouraging.

It is through public schools, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade, community colleges and universities that the vast majority of our young people are educated, now and in the foreseeable future. In order to have the best education systems possible, leaders at all levels must understand the issues deeply and personally. Governors and other political leaders often rely on advisors for information about the myriad issues they face, but nothing is a substitute for first-hand knowledge. This is particularly true of education, where research can be overwhelming and getting clear, concise, reliable and timely information is not always easy.

At least, that’s what I found when I became governor of North Carolina, and that’s what led me to establish the Hunt Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Our goal at the institute is to ensure that elected officials and policymakers in states across the country have the most up-to-date, accurate information possible about public education. To accomplish this, we have two primary strategies: convening and publications.

Each year since 2002, we have held an education symposium for our nation’s governors, the last two years in partnership with the National Governors Association. In fact, Gov. Bob Riley attended the first symposium eight years ago. At these symposia, governors have the opportunity to meet in an informal setting to candidly discuss education issues with a handful of carefully selected experts who present accurate and balanced information. The setting is bipartisan, and the tenor of the conversations is straight and to the point. Governors hear from, and share ideas with, one another and can learn from work their colleagues are doing in their own states.

We also convene state legislative leaders from around the country and hold a special separate retreat for North Carolina legislators. These meetings mirror the dynamic we create for governors. Open, honest dialogue is the rule of the day. In a setting away from the daily pressures of their positions, legislators are able to delve into critical issues, share proven solutions and learn the latest research.

To support and enhance our meetings, the Hunt Institute produces several kinds of publications: issue briefs that provide background information on items discussed at our meetings; a publication for governors, Blueprint, that addresses issues of common interest across states; and two publications for North Carolina legislators: CoNCepts, which covers education issues in-depth, and Did You Know?, a one-page issue synopsis. All of these are written in a very accessible, jargon-free format.

Over the years, our work in our home state has evolved beyond our annual North Carolina Legislators Retreat and publications. We are an active participant on North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue’s Education Transformation Commission charged with oversight of our Race to the Top grant. Race to the Top is an integral part of Perdue’s education agenda: College and Career Ready, Set, Go! We have been active in securing private funding for major state initiatives for alternative teacher preparation and poverty alleviation, supporting and helping to launch principal leadership institutes, participating on Perdue’s Southern Regional Education Board Middle Grades Commission, and bringing together extended learning time advocates from North Carolina and two other Southern states.

There is no doubt in my mind that an entity committed to innovative education policy reform in Alabama will help reinforce progress and propel achievement even further. There are other entities making a real difference in states, including The Prichard Committee in Kentucky and SCORE in Tennessee, chaired by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. Both are non-partisan and dedicated to improving and informing public education in their states.

Together, in each of our states and around the country, we can get this job done. Our economy demands more, and our citizens deserve no less.

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