PINEHURST, N.C. -- Legislatures in the vast majority of states will convene this month, and after an election cycle in which voters frequently favored newcomers over incumbents, public college officials and others will find an unprecedented number of unfamiliar faces among their local lawmakers. That turnover will almost certainly exacerbate the sense shared by many -- including a national group of state legislators themselves, in a 2006 report -- that legislative understanding of, and leadership on, higher education issues is lacking.
North Carolina's General Assembly convenes next week, and new legislators will fill the House and Senate chambers here as elsewhere. But thanks to a unique program aimed at enhancing the education expertise of lawmakers in the Tar Heel State, North Carolina's House and Senate members will start their session fresh off a crash course on the challenges facing the state's prestigious public college system.
Several dozen legislators spent two days last week at the 8th annual legislators' retreat sponsored by the James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, where they heard presentations from national experts on a wide range of higher education issues and talked pointedly, in what several of them referred to as a "safe haven" out of the public spotlight, about the challenges ahead for North Carolina's higher education system.
"Legislators spend most of their time in session reacting," said State Representative Rick Glazier, a five-term Democrat and lawyer who teaches law at Campbell University. "This allows us to form some relationships and have the kind of discussions around the major issues that you don't always have the time to have when you're in session."
Creating 'Education Legislators'
That is exactly the goal of the retreat and of the institute named for Jim Hunt, who, in a total of 16 years in two stints as North Carolina's top public official, was widely hailed as the country's leading (if not first) "education governor." Since its founding in 2002, much of the institute's work has focused on encouraging other governors to put education at or near the top of their agendas, but the center's leaders knew that governors could not make significant progress without the help of mayors, business leaders and others -- especially legislators.
So Hunt and his predecessor, former Gov. James Holshouser, a Republican, invited the Republican and Democratic leaders of the key education and financial committees to the first retreat in 2003, says Judith Rizzo, the institute's executive director and CEO. The meeting was well-received -- so much so that other legislators wanted in. "What are we, chopped liver?" Rizzo recalls the rank-and-file lawmakers asking. The institute extended invitations the next year to all 170 members of the General Assembly, and the number of participants has climbed steadily over the years.
This year, for the first time, the main focus of the retreat shifted to higher education instead of K-12. The Hunt Institute's leaders hold a lunch each fall to solicit ideas from several legislators about what to cover during the retreat, and at last fall's lunch, postsecondary issues rose to the surface, with legislators eager to discuss the implications for North Carolina of President Obama's college completion agenda, as well as the almost certain need to cut higher education spending in what promises to be a budget-constrained 2011-12 legislative session.
More than 70 legislators -- including many brand-new members of the General Assembly -- had committed to attending the higher education retreat, though a snowstorm (and the winter-weather-related skittishness common in the South) suppressed the number who actually showed.
The several dozen hardy souls who made it brainstormed with national experts like Ohio Chancellor Eric Fingerhut and representatives of the Southern Regional Education Board and Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, as well as presidents of North Carolina public colleges and universities, including Guilford Technical Community College and North Carolina Central University, who shared ideas about programs they have developed that could be spread to other campuses.
The legislators also got occasional pep talks from Hunt, who exhorted them, as they prepare for a legislative session that is almost certain to require significant cuts in state funding, to do their best to protect education -- "the most important thing we do," as he described it.
Hunt has never hidden the fact that he is a believer in the power of education of all sorts, and the legislators at the retreat certainly had to know that they were hearing about the issues from the perspective of an advocate. But while the retreat was very much about higher education, in terms of the material covered and the issues explored, it never had the feel of being presented from the perspective of colleges and universities -- a fact essential to its credibility, several lawmakers and others acknowledged.
"It couldn't be us doing it," said Thomas W. Ross, who was a full six days into his presidency of the University of North Carolina System when he participated in the retreat last week. "If [North Carolina's colleges and universities] tried to put something like this on, the legislators wouldn't come, or if they came, they would view it very differently," and more skeptically, he said.
"We try to be as honest brokers of information as possible," said Rizzo, the Hunt Institute's director. "We are in a unique position in terms of our ability to do that, given who we are as individuals. We love public education, but we also acknowledge that it's flawed."
The content of the retreat tilted toward the positive, with many of the speakers (in addition to Hunt) stressing the importance of education and higher education to the state's future and urging the legislators to give colleges more regulatory flexibility since they'll be unable to shield them from budget cuts. But speakers also cited data showing North Carolina trailing the national averages on such measures as the percentage of adults with a bachelor's degree or higher.
The balance in the program meant that even legislators who often take a skeptical view of higher education found value in the retreat. Dale R. Folwell, who describes himself as one of North Carolina's most conservative lawmaker and spoke frequently about the need for more accountability in education, answered a reporter's question about whether the retreat was helpful by recounting "what I tell my kids about how you learn: 'If you know what you don't know, and surround yourself with people who are smarter than you and who you don't agree with, you're going to end up better off.'"
A Model for Others
Just how uniquely positioned the Hunt Institute is to try to inform and influence state lawmakers about education may well be tested if, as seems likely, others consider adopting its model of the legislators' retreat. The head of former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist's State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Tennessee nonprofit group, attended the North Carolina seminar, and officials from several other states have asked the Hunt Institute for information about how they might put in place their own versions of the retreat.
The North Carolina retreat may be tough to replicate, given North Carolina's history of emphasis and bipartisanship on education (and higher education) issues. "Not every place has a Jim Hunt and a Jim Holshouser," said R. Scott Ralls, president of the North Carolina Community College System, who also participated in last week's retreat.
Still, he said, "I can't help but believe that in every state, there are folks like these -- legislators who care about education, and leaders, regardless of party, who want to help them understand the issues."