WITH the future of his department poised on the congressional chopping block, Secretary of Education Richard Riley used his annual State of the American Education address this week to defend public education against a firestorm of attacks.
The speech, which was delivered in St. Louis, also provided an opportunity to promote the education ideas President Clinton is likely to emphasize during the presidential campaign.
Mr. Riley criticized Republicans who want to slash education funding and abolish the Department of Education. ''This is the wrong time to cut education funding,'' he said, calling Congress ''out of touch with the American people.''
The secretary acknowledged that the American education system has serious problems and pinpointed the need to improve national reading test scores as a priority.
He announced a nationwide reading and writing partnership bringing together 35 nonprofit groups and companies, including the American Library Association, Pizza Hut, and the Girl Scouts of America. Some of these groups already have literacy programs of their own.
After a decade of investment, national math and science scores have improved considerably, Riley said, calling this a ''great success story for American education.'' But ''our national reading scores are flat,'' he said.
Yet launching a nationwide campaign promoting literacy is only one side of the coin, says Bruno Manno, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington.
''The real change has to come not because Uncle Sam mounts a literacy campaign, but because communities, neighborhoods, and families decide that they want higher standards for their kids,'' he says.
In his speech, Riley noted that American classrooms are overflowing. ''Next fall we will have more young people in our schools than at any time in our nation's history - 51.7 million - breaking the record set in 1971 when the baby boomers came of age,'' he said.
Meanwhile, critics of public schools are pushing for an expansion of vouchers allowing public funding of private schools. Riley argued against the idea, saying it offers no ''public accountability.''
Funneling taxpayer dollars to private schools is ''a retreat from the democratic purposes of public education,'' he said, warning that ''some private-school voucher proponents ... seek nothing less than the dismemberment of the public-education system.'' A voucher plan for Washington, D.C., schools failed in the Senate on Tuesday.
He says education needs to ''open up to new ways of doing business.'' The White House backs public-school choice and charter schools, which operate outside the traditional constraints of the system.
As part of the new federal budget, Clinton is asking Congress for ''venture capital'' to create additional charter schools nationwide.
The secretary's speech reiterated several education themes Clinton first raised in his January State of the Union address. For example, he encouraged schools to consider uniforms for students if teachers and parents feel it would help prevent gang violence.
Riley also touted the administration's proposed $1,000 merit scholarships to top high school graduates and a tuition tax deduction for college tuition.
While conceding that public schools face considerable challenges, Riley stepped into the role of cheerleader and encouraged Americans to work together for better schools.
''More than debate,'' he said, ''we need action - a lot more of that old-fashioned American 'can do' spirit that brings out the best in all of us.''