IT'S tough to find anyone who will utter a discouraging word about Richard Riley, the former governor of South Carolina who will be President Clinton's secretary of education.
Those who have followed his career describe Mr. Riley as "a fantastic human being," "one of the best education governors," "a man of great political savvy."
"Riley is bringing enormous practical experience and a success record with him from South Carolina," says Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. "There's no question that he moved toward higher standards and more money [for education in South Carolina] but also built huge credibility among the teachers."
A nationwide poll taken during Riley's tenure as governor showed that South Carolina teachers were the most pleased of all American teachers with the education reform going on in their state.
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, calls Riley's South Carolina school-reform package "the most sophisticated and successful of its day."
While governor from 1978 to 1987, Riley pushed through a 1 percent sales-tax increase to pay for sweeping changes in the state's lagging school system. The state raised education standards, gained the authority to take over inferior school districts, and established a system of merit pay for teachers. Student performance improved dramatically.
"Riley knows the terrain and the issues," says Denis Doyle, an education specialist at the Hudson Institute in Indianapolis. "He's also a hard-headed realist, which will make it easier for him to talk turkey with various constituent groups. He sympathizes but will be able to carry the unhappy news that there's not much money in Uncle Sam's purse to pay for big, fancy, new programs."
Mr. Shanker views Riley as "very different from his predecessors. ... He doesn't have any of that public-relations surface or arrogance that has characterized some of his predecessors."
"He's certainly not a Bill Bennett who is going to go off on his own and make a lot of statements and be a flashy, oratorical figure," says Michael Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "I see him more as a team player." (Mr. Bennett was education secretary under President Reagan.)
Frank Newman, president of the Education Commission of the States in Denver, describes Riley as "a little more down-home" than Lamar Alexander, President Bush's secretary of education. "Certainly he's less conservative in terms of favoring things like vouchers or the Edison Project," Christopher Whittle's plan for a nationwide private-school system.
Mr. Newman sees a movement back toward focusing on the public-school system. "There's been a feeling in the wings among some people ... of `Let's get on with this. Let's just privatize [education],' " he says. "When you have the president of the United States and the secretary of education going around and making that argument, it's a powerful force."
Although private-school choice will lose favor in Washington, other parts of Bush's "America 2000" education-improvement agenda may continue.
"If the Clinton administration wanted to, they could change America 2000 in their own image and get tremendous mileage out of it," Mr. Doyle says. "There is nothing about it that is inconsistent with the Clinton tradition."