Education secretary looks for balance

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Us secretary of education Richard Riley has been deeply involved in education reform for most of his public life. As governor of South Carolina in 1984, he persuaded the business community to support a hike in the sales tax to finance sweeping reforms in public schools, including incentives for schools that improved and restructuring for those that did not.

Now, he aims to convince Republicans in Congress that the president's new education proposals will not undermine the principle of local control of schools. He discussed how to strike that balance with the Monitor last week. Excerpts follow:

On reform in the states:

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"Forty-eight states have in place a system of statewide, challenging standards. The important thing is to get those standards down into the classroom, so the child has the opportunity to learn to challenging standards in every grade. Then, everything exponentially improves."

On low-performing schools:

"For standards to work, all parts of the system have to work. If you have a poor-performing school and you try to correct it, and you try again, and you try again, and it's still a poor-performing school, then it ought to be reconstituted or closed down and other schools put in its place. You can't tolerate poor-performing schools."

On social promotion:

"We don't favor just letting kids drift through the system or just building a system based on retention.... If a kid can't read independently by the end of the third grade, then something special needs to be done for that kid to help him move along. Clearly, that is up to the states and the local schools. We're trying to be helpful to get the states and the country moving in the right direction. [Our proposal] will bring about a very healthy debate, and that's part of the president's role."

On what would trigger federal penalties:

We haven't worked out the specifics. [What we're looking for] is a process that does not move children through the school system without accomplishing any academic progress.... How states develop that process is primarily up to them, because they set the standards.

I want to make it clear that we're not talking about building in some massive retention process whereby you have 16- year-old people in the second grade. Massive retention doesn't work. The system should be built on teaching a child."

On cutting federal regulation:

We have reduced regulations by two-thirds - and this by Democrats coming in after years of Republican administrations. We have EdFlex in 12 states, whereby waivers can be given to federal programs by the state itself. We favor as much flexibility as you can have.

On converting federal funds to block grants:

"Revenue-sharing didn't work. Some very bizarre uses of money came out of that. We favor giving to the local school district or state enormous flexibility, but the funds have to be used to accomplish some purpose and with some measure of accountability. If funds aren't targeted for a purpose, you have no way of measuring which funds are well spent."

On Washington's role:

"Federal dollars go out to the schools ... and we have a certain responsibility to see that those funds are not wasted. But control over what is taught and how it is taught is really the control of the states. If you take federal money, you must not have a policy built on failure, drift, and nonperformance. You must have policies accountable to the parents, students, and the people who fund them."

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