Charlottesville Summit, 30 Years Later: Jim Hunt on the Governors’ Gathering That Changed Education, Leadership, Competition & Raising Teacher Pay

To commemorate the 1989 Education Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia, that convened 49 of the nation’s 50 governors to discuss a single policy issue — the education of America’s children — the Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program is partnering with The 74 to produce a series of Q&A’s with distinguished leaders across politics, education and advocacy to reflect on the legacy of the summit and what lies ahead for public education. The interviews were conducted over the telephone, transcribed and edited for clarity and length. Participants were asked some of the same questions, but also queried specifically about their careers and backgrounds. These leaders share their thoughts on why the summit was a groundbreaking event, the strengths and shortcomings of education policy and what is required for propelling further gains for students. You can see all the interviews here.

Jim Hunt, Democrat of North Carolina, served as governor from 1977 to 1985 and from 1993 to 2001. He is known as the nation’s first education governor, having been an early proponent of teaching standards and early childhood education. The Hunt Institute, in Durham, N.C., was established in his honor to inspire and support elected officials and policymakers to improve education. Here, he discusses the importance of leadership, increasing teacher pay, why testing and accountability matter and why governors should care about education.

What do you think are the greatest accomplishments that stem from the 1989 Education Summit and the agreements that were reached around standards-based education reform?

The 1989 Education Summit did not come out of nowhere — governors across the country, including many in the South, had been focused on education. These governors knew they needed to commit themselves to building the economy of their states and providing more high-quality jobs for their people. The key to doing this is education.

At the 1989 Education Summit, the nation’s governors presented their ideas about the importance of education and agreed to set higher standards for education and measure the performance of their schools. Without rigorous standards and strong tests, we don’t know how well our schools are performing and won’t be able to make meaningful and equitable improvement.

When you think about public education in North Carolina, or as you look across the country, how would you characterize the results for students and schools that came from the summit’s commitments?

The states increased their focus on their schools and education progress as the way to improve their states. The National Assessment of Educational Progress had existed for a while, and governors became aware of its availability and started to really use it. We started focusing on how our students were doing and had the advantage of NAEP.

After the Charlottesville summit, the president and the governors came out of there realizing that if we are not to be a nation at risk, then we had to improve education. The governors decided, “I want my state to be a leader. I’ve got to go home and have us improve education, and I, as the governor, have to lead it.”

It eventually became a race to the top — each state wanted to be the best. The governor had to be the main leader and coordinating force because they had the bully pulpit.

A lot of analysts would say we’ve made some gains based on that agenda, but we’ve hit a plateau. In recent years, progress has not been as dramatic as we saw earlier in the standards-based reform era. How do we re-energize the agenda for educational improvement?

I think we need a new call to arms. Let’s do this thing again.

We need to rediscover the energy behind the Charlottesville summit, which must start at the state level. We need to sharpen our focus on the economic importance of education, to understand that we are living in a highly competitive global economy and that America’s well-being depends on schools. This has to start at the state level, with governors and legislators understanding the importance of this work, committing themselves to high standards and reliable tests that give us accurate information about how our schools are performing.

But we have to use the information that comes from those assessments to improve education and invest the resources needed to improve instruction and learning. This won’t happen in a vacuum — states need to collaborate and share ideas, but they also need to be ready to compete with one another. In the years before and after the 1989 summit, our governors all wanted to be the best, and that led to real progress on education across our states.

We are living through polarized times when education issues have been very politicized. Can you offer advice to governors and other state leaders about how to recreate the bipartisan spirit that animated the earlier years of standards-based reform?

I think we get the bipartisan spirit and leadership by seeking out partnership from the business community to advocate on behalf of education reforms. Education is the most important thing we can do to improve our economies, and business leaders know that. State leaders also need to listen to teachers, principals and parents and engage directly with schools. As governor, I regularly convened teachers to help inform the policies I was crafting.

We need a network of leaders on both sides of the aisle who are committed to education and make it a priority, and who are willing to learn from other states. As governor, I met regularly with my peers in other states, such as Gov. Tom Kean in New Jersey, and we shared the best programs and replicated them in our own states. Kean and I established the Hunt-Kean Leadership Fellows program to help a bipartisan group of future governors understand the most important ways to improve education and equip them with the tools and knowledge to drive real progress in their states.

Standards-based reform has become very contentious among teachers, leading to very public and very political issues. What do we need to do to create greater support again among teachers? 

Teachers are our most important school-based asset. We need to identify ways to continue to support them. One of the things that came along after Charlottesville, when Bill Clinton served as president, was the formation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. I led the group that formed the [board] and chaired it for its first 10 years. It was primarily made of teachers but included administrators, business leaders, parents and other key stakeholders. We focused on setting high standards and then on encouraging states and localities to increase the compensation of those who met those high standards. It was an important way to show teachers that we supported them.

Teachers have other concerns, but I think low salaries is the driving force behind the teacher strikes we’ve seen. States need to raise teacher pay to be competitive and get the best people in classrooms.


“States need to collaborate and share ideas, but they also need to be ready to compete with one another. In the years before and after the 1989 summit, our governors all wanted to be the best, and that led to real progress on education across our states.”

The pay of administrators also needs to be increased, and we need more paraprofessionals in the classroom to help. When I first ran for governor, I pledged to make sure every child learned to read, and in the first budgets that I put through the legislature, we provided funds for a teacher assistant in every classroom in grades 1, 2 and 3 across the state. That was an immense commitment, but it provided the kinds of classroom support we needed to have, especially helping kids in underresourced communities.

The resources are there if we decide we’re going to put them into education and have great schools and be a great nation. Assessment is also extremely important, and I am concerned about the movement to opt out of testing or reduce the assessments that provide critical feedback to state leaders, the business community, parents, schools and teachers about how our children are growing and achieving. Learning will decrease instead of increase, and those parents who are concerned about the tests and telling their students not to take the test are selling their students short — their students can pass those tests. And parents need to have confidence that their students are learning. You can’t have that confidence unless they are measuring what they’re learning. It takes that to get into college, it takes that to have a good career.

We’re in a moment when state leadership is ascendant in a way that recalls the compact that was created out of Charlottesville. The federal role has been decreasing with the passage of [the Every Student Succeeds Act at the end of the last administration and with the way the current administration approaches enforcement and oversight. You’ve talked about the need for more funding and the need for testing and accountability. States in the past 10 to 15 years have become much more invested in teacher evaluation and school improvement. How would you advise governors and state leaders to approach their role in leading education improvement?

Their role is the primary one. I would advise the governors in every state, and those who aspire to be governor, to focus on education. I would encourage every governor to work with their state board of education to make sure the standards are rigorous. Governors need to be strong leaders who support good testing and accountability. The students who will suffer when we lower our standards are those who are already underserved.

I would advise the governors in every state to do what we did by making education their main priority. To be successful, they will need to be the driver of support across the state by connecting with stakeholders and making sure all of them are focusing on results.

Governors should convene their own state conferences — include business, policymakers, parents, educators and students — to discuss real ways to improve their schools. And then governors need to be committed to putting additional resources into the schools. If the ESSA plans are inadequate, the governor needs to be involved in making sure that they are fixed and that strong plans are put in place with the necessary funding. And if it means changing the tax system so that we have additional funds, that’s exactly what we ought to do.

What will it take to create real opportunity for students of color and for students who are growing up in low-income families?

In every state, we know that we are not doing enough to help our students and schools most in need of additional support. If I were president today, I would double or triple Title I funding immediately. But in addition to increased resources, we need to focus on high standards and how to accurately measure learning so that we know how we are doing. We must use that information to focus on how we specifically, tangibly, are going to help lower-income students.

What we did with No Child Left Behind and the things we have done since then have helped, but there is another dimension. We also need to stop the resegregation of our public schools. Segregation hurts our students, our communities and our democracy; it is unacceptable, and we must find solutions to ensure our public schools reflect what makes America so special.

Critically, we are now seeing states focus on investing in early childhood education. We know now that the first three years of life are the most important. Those who are in the toughest circumstances ought to have the best and the most support.

Ross Wiener is vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of its Education & Society Program. Previously, he was vice president for program and policy at the Education Trust and a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section.

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