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A Hunter for Justice

Molly Hunter created a national clearinghouse for educational equity efforts nationwide. Now she's bringing it to TC.

When you take on a project like suing New York State on behalf of 1 million school children, it helps to be able to rally good people to your cause. Fortunately, Michael Rebell, co-founder and for years the guiding spirit of the Campaign for Fiscal Equity  (the plaintiff in the nation's most prominent school finance lawsuit),  has that knack. And of all the people Rebell has collected over the years, none has proven more valuable than Molly Hunter. "Molly has built up an incredible expertise about what's happening in virtually every state in the union in regard to education reform litigation," says Rebell, who in June became Executive Director of The Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College. "She really has become the person that people all over the country go to when they want information about what's happening in this area."

Hunter was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in rural Pennsylvania.  She says her parents placed a great deal of value on education; her brother teaches English in a small town high school in Ohio. But for the first part of her career, she followed a different path, working in Pittsburgh as a certified public accountant at Ernst & Young and then at two private companies. "At a certain point, I said, 'What's the value added?'" Hunter says. "I felt like I was just counting beans.  Billions of beans, but beans, just the same. I wanted to work for an organization whose mission I believed in.'"

She enrolled at New York University School of Law, determined to pursue environmental issues and education. While she was there, the school's Review of Law & Social Change, on which she served as a student editor,  sponsored a symposium on education and invited Rebell to speak and write a piece for publication.  "As soon as I heard him speak, I said to the editor in chief, -'that's the piece I'm editing,'' Hunter recalls.

Hunter and Rebell hit it off during the editing process and right after graduation, he hired her as CFE's Director of Legal Research.  She subsequently created CFE's national Access network, initially a clearinghouse of information and contacts for educational equity efforts across the country.

According to Hunter, the network grew out of Rebell's predilection for research. From the beginning, she says, her new boss placed great emphasis not only on finding out what other organizations were doing on the legal front, but also on reaching out to educational experts, teachers and parents to establish what a fairly-funded school system should look like.  "When we looked around the country, we saw that advocates who did that kind of public outreach tended to have a better result when they got to the remedy stage of the litigation," Hunter says. "Our public engagement has been very helpful. We've explained to people what some of the problems are and what some of the possible solutions are, but more than that, we've asked for their input.'"

After a while, CFE began accumulating information, studies and success stories, as well as a Rolodex of people involved in similar efforts across the country.  And soon, colleagues began to realize that CFE's was a good number to call. "A guy called us from Michigan and said, 'We want to bring a facilities-only case and we think we have a unique provision in our constitution that says this and this, what do you think?'"  Hunter says. "So we said, 'Well, you know, I talked to somebody from Louisiana and they have the same provision in their constitution,' and so we gave him the number."

 Since 2001, Access has also been holding annual conferences on subjects related to education reform and litigation; last year's drew people from 39 states and the District of Columbia.

Now Hunter is joining Rebell again. By year-end, she will bring the already-formed Access network and two employees with her to The Campaign for Educational Equity. She and her team will continue providing crucial resources to school finance suit plaintiffs across the country, passing along contacts and litigation tips. With a growing number of plaintiffs winning their suits, they'll also be reporting on what states are doing once remedies are ordered.

 In addition, Access will continue to provide quick-read sum-ups of the latest in expert educational policy thinking at places like Teacher's College. "We look at what professors at Teacher's College and other experts are saying about costing out or teaching quality or class size or preschool and boil it down for people who don't have the time to do that," Hunter says. "We call it action-oriented research."  

Hunter says she's excited about the TC collaboration. "TC will put a stronger, bigger engine behind our work which will be wonderful. With the addition of Access, the new TC Campaign for Educational Equity is going to, overnight, become a national entity with over 3,000 contacts dedicated to improving the quality of education and working to close opportunity gaps. So it seems to me it's a great fit."

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