Governor they call 'teacher' pushes education reform

James B. Hunt, governor of North Carolina, says official business kept him tied up late that day, so he wasn't able to call McDonalds until 10:30 at night. Governor Hunt tutors one day a week in a Raleigh dropout prevention program; one of his students was trying to get a job flipping hamburgers, and needed a recommendation.

''So I called down there,'' he recalls, ''and sa)rVPpjtz44 Oernor Hunt calling, I'd like to recommend so-and-so for a job,' and they thought somebody was putting them on. They laughed, you know, and tried to carry on with me some. It took me five minutes to convince them it was really me on the phone.''

The governor's intense gaze relaxes a bit. ''Well, to shorten the story, the kid got his job. His schoolwork improved greatly. He didn't drop out.''

North Carolina's Democratic governor is personally involved in improving his state's pre-college public education. Soon after his election in 1976, he pushed through a program that placed a half-time reading instructor in all Grade 1-3 classrooms.

Since then, the state has begun insisting that all high school graduates pass a minimum competency test. High school science requirements have been tightened. An old hospital has been turned into the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics, a haven for gifted students similar to New York's famous science-oriented secondary schools.

North Carolina is not a rich state, and it ranks 36th in average teacher salaries. But it has acquired a reputation for making good use of its educational resources.

And all the while, Governor Hunt has graphically demonstrated his interest in education to the voters by serving as a volunteer in local schools: first, as a reading aide in primary grades, later, as a tutor in high school remedial programs. He is now in the enviable position, for a politician with national ambitions, of being able to prove he was out front on an issue which has suddenly become cover-story news.

''The primary responsibility (for improving education in the United States) is state and local,'' says Hunt, interviewed in North Carolina's Washington office. ''Every governor is going to have to lead a response. Every local community, board of education, county commissioner, and every chamber of commerce is going to have to lead a response.''

Governor Hunt is chairman of an Education Commission of the States task force on education for economic growth, and came to the nation's capital for the announcement of the task force's action plan for improving US schools.

The plan focuses on the need for government, business, educators, and parents to form ''new alliances'' and create a ''new ethic of excellence in public education.''

Business, in particular, ''should be much more deeply involved in the process of setting goals for education in America, and in helping our schools reach those goals,'' says the plan.

In North Carolina, Hunt says, business is already heavily involved in support of education. Businesses and trade associations donated $2.3 million to a recent endowment campaign for the state's science and math high school. An individual company can ''adopt'' a lab at the science school by paying for equipment.

In Raleigh, the state capital, the local Chamber of Commerce has helped form a business/education foundation. Forty firms have joined, anteing up $50,000 between them. ''They had a kickoff dinner the other night,'' Hunt recalls. ''Twelve hundred people came. The young people performed, demonstrating their talents.''

The state has a business committee on math-science teaching. Partners in Schools is a state program intended to give underachievers the incentive to improve their school work by getting them part-time jobs.

Some educators worry that increasing business's role in education planning risks turning schools into corporate farm teams, with too much emphasis on technical training and not enough on education for its own sake.

''Business is not going to dictate to us,'' replies Hunt. ''They're going to be part of the decision. They're going to give us their ideas as to what they need.''

Hunt ticks off the ''competencies'' his task force report recommends.

''The ability to identify and comprehend the main and subordinate ideas in a written work . . . the ability to organize, select, and relate ideas. Those things aren't vocational. Business today, especially businesses with high technology involved in them, know that they have to have broadly educated people ,'' claims the governor.

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