Gov. Jay Inslee has chosen Rep. Ross Hunter, a 13-year legislator with experience in the public and private sectors, to lead Washington’s Department of Early Learning as the state opens a new chapter of its early education work. Hunter starts Sept. 8 and will earn $150,000 a year.
A former PTA activist, Hunter brings a commitment to improving education – school funding was a central plank in his initial successful 2002 campaign for the state Legislature. In the Legislature, he has become a champion of early learning and its central place in the education continuum.
A former general manager at Microsoft and chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Hunter has a deep understanding of the state budget and technology, along with proven leadership experience. As important, he is passionate about early learning’s power to change the lives of hundreds of thousands of at-risk children across Washington.
“This is the highest value thing we can do as a state to improve outcomes for kids,” Hunter said. “What they were looking for was someone who could implement, (with) managerial experience, who knew how the state works, knew all the players…who managed large groups of people.”
The incoming Department of Early Learning (DEL) director will need those skills because he takes over the 250-person agency at a critical time. Earlier this year, the state Legislature passed the Early Start Act, designed to improve quality in early learning, provide unprecedented resources to early educators, and create a greater focus on ensuring that early learning quality improvements work for the state’s diverse communities. In addition, Gov. Inslee and the Legislature made the state’s largest ever investment in early learning: $158 million.
“I want to see it hit the ground,” said Hunter, who was a key sponsor of the Early Start Act. “I want to have the rubber actually meet the road.”
Hunter’s appointment was hailed by leaders in the early learning community.
“Over the past few years, Ross has built his expertise and become a true champion of early learning,” said Sam Whiting, president and CEO at Thrive Washington. “We’re excited to be DEL’s partner in this new era of their work.”
Overall, Hunter will be charged with continuing to build momentum for high-quality early learning in Washington. This work includes expanding access to the state preschool system, the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP); making child care more affordable; and raising early educators’ pay to the levels of other educators, says Jon Gould, deputy director of Seattle-based Children’s Alliance.
“We are still at the very early stage of putting in place a quality early learning system that every child has access to,” Gould said.
With his experience managing software development at Microsoft, Hunter wants to invest in technology at DEL. Hunter, for example, wants to improve eligibility systems for families seeking child care aid, which can be complex and time consuming.
Hunter succeeds Bette Hyde, who led the department through its impressive last six years and officially retired this week. During her tenure, Washington won a $60 million Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant, developed Early Achievers, the state’s quality ratings and improvement system, and helped push early learning to the front of public policy debates. Hunter plans to build on those achievements.
“My job here is to execute. It is what I do,” Hunter says.