Governor Jim Hunt founded The James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership & Policy Foundation, Inc. in the spring of 2001 after finishing his fourth term in office as governor of North Carolina. He had seen just how powerful information about the education system was in getting things done on the policy side, and he wanted to support the learning and development of policymakers in a formal way.
As we celebrate 20 years of The Hunt Institute this spring, we sat down with Governor Hunt to ask him about what sparked his plan to found The Institute, and to reflect on what The Institute has achieved in the years since.
Governor, thank you so much for taking time to talk about the early days of The Hunt Institute. First things first, when did you initially have the idea to found an organization focused on informing policymakers on the important levers in education?
It’s probably not surprising to anyone that the idea came about from my time as governor. During all of my years as governor, 16 years in total, but over the course of a quarter of a century, I was deeply interested in education, particularly in North Carolina, a state that had focused on public education early on. I came along after Terry Sanford, a great education governor, and I was intent on making education my top priority, as I saw how it fed into economic development and people development. It had become clear to me that the most important thing you can do in public policy is to invest in education, because that affects the economy, people, their attitudes, and forward development. It is the way you make people and society great, which is why I felt governors and other public leaders needed a dedicated space to learn more about how to make education the most effective it can possibly be.
What did you envision the organization would look like?
Well, I certainly did not envision it would become all that it has become today, 20 years later, but I knew that I wanted it to be an organization that would focus on informing public leaders, particularly governors, state legislators, future governors, and others on what the newest and best ideas were for education. My priority was mainly at the state level since states can and do have the most effect and influence on public education.
What was most important to you in those early days? What did you refuse to compromise on?
I refused to compromise on not reaching governors in all 50 states – I was determined that The Hunt Institute would help leaders all over America. I knew we needed governors – in some ways the most important leaders in America – to get together to learn how to improve their education systems. It had been key to the development of North Carolina – I’d seen it with my own eyes. An educated workforce had made us such an attractive state, bringing in companies from all over the world. I had seen how industry and education worked together, particularly with Research Triangle Park, so I was determined to have an organization that would contact and connect with these leaders, bring them together, give them some of the best ideas, and encourage them to make education their top priority. Not all governors are education governors, but they ought to be. The Hunt Institute provided the space for governors to learn, get excited, and go home and work at further developing their education systems.
What in your mind was the most significant initial achievement of The Institute, when you really realized that the organization was sustainable and had an achievable mission?
When we began to have the Governors Education Symposium events, the first in December 2002, with the top governors in America involved, I knew we had succeeded in creating something special. I vividly recall a conversation with the current US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, and former governor of Iowa, after that first Symposium. He said to me that it was the best event he had ever attended, and he was going to take the new ideas and new insights back to Iowa to bring a fresh excitement to the field of education. I spoke with him recently and asked if he remembered those comments he made. He did remember, and remarked on how impactful it had been to have the opportunity to focus exclusively on the topic of education, then teach it to his people, and personally lead the effort. Without The Hunt Institute that never would have happened. The Institute continues to work in Iowa, and not just because it is the home state of my wife Carolyn; through our Hunt-Kean Leadership Fellows program, which supports future governors, we have had the current Governor and Lt. Governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds and Adam Gregg, both go through the program.
As The Institute has grown over the years, how has it evolved, and what do you envision for the future?
It’s grown tremendously, and I think that now in a sense, The Hunt Institute is becoming the one organization in America that is most effectively focused on state government and making it excellent. In America people so often focus on the federal level, and all that goes on in Washington, and that is critical, don’t get me wrong, but states are so critical as well – they are closer to the people, closer to the schools, closer to the children, families, and communities. Looking forward, The Hunt Institute will continue to concentrate on 50 states, 50 governors, 50 legislatures, and the people that serve and lead there that are close to the people every single day. You see Washington folks on television and that’s one thing, but when you see your state leaders on television or in person, you feel like you know them, and they can encourage you and inspire you in a way that folks in Washington never can. That’s what we aim to do here at The Hunt Institute, to share with state and local leaders the latest information and research in the field of education in order for them to be able to implement an equitable education system for all.