Secretary Riley: Point Man on Education

Meet the only US secretary of Education to have both a building and a penguin named after him. The building, on the campus of Furman University in hometown Greenville, S.C., is the Richard W. Riley Computer Science and Mathematics Building; the Humboldt penguin, in a zoo in Columbus, Ohio, is simply "Riley."

These tributes signal two sides of a man many credit as being one of the great statesmen of education in this century.

As governor of South Carolina, Richard Riley launched the most comprehensive education reform in the nation. As Education secretary, he is managing a national effort to save the public school system.

He also reads to children, especially his own nine grandchildren. And in a city where caustic comment can flow thick and fast, he models pure civility.

Secretary Riley doesn't look the part of a politician. His thin voice barely made it over the din of traffic and tourists at a briefing outside the Senate last week to support President Clinton's initiative to lower class size in Grades 1 through 3. Afterward, he shook hands with children in attendance and asked each the same key question: "Do you read?"

"He's great! Who is he?" asked Patrick Friberg, a Washington third-grader who had come to the briefing with his classmates.

Most Americans couldn't pick Riley out of a lineup. Yet he stands at the center of the biggest policy issue of Mr. Clinton's second term.

When Riley took over the Education Department, it topped the hit list for GOP lawmakers, who viewed it as a political payoff to the big teachers' unions for bankrolling Democratic candidates. President Carter created the department in 1979. But under Riley's leadership, it has moved off the endangered list and to the center of the political debate.

Early on, Riley aimed to reassure states that as a former governor, he understood the importance of local control. "I didn't come to Washington to save the job of a bureaucrat or to defend old ways of doing business," he said in his second annual State of American Education address. While he has never taken on the teachers unions, he has ensured that programs, such as the class-size-reduction initiative, are laced with merit-based incentives, once anathema to unions.

Riley has spent a lot of time in schools, and peppers his statements with examples from his travels - a strategy honed while barnstorming South Carolina in 1984 to get support for his $217 million school-reform package.

Since coming to Washington in 1993, he has visited more than 900 schools, a record for an Education secretary.

What distinguishes Riley's leadership is the one-on-one conversations away from the cameras. To a businessman wary of "pouring money into schools," he describes a school he has just visited where teachers scrambled to get lunches to students in classrooms because rain flooded out the cafeteria. "No one is pouring money into that school," he says.

The Riley approach is to come up with a big idea, such as high standards for all children, build partnerships to support it, then stay the course. "Sustain" is a big word in Riley's lexicon; "quick fix" is as close as he comes to a curse.

But staying the course is not always easy. The president's $12 billion class-size reduction initiative has already been turned down twice by the Republican-controlled Senate. Instead, senators voted to support education tax credits that parents could use to offset private-school tuition.

"I don't think there is a chance in the world that [tax credits worth $7 to $37 a year] would cause a single child to have a better education. We need real change," Riley says.

For a time, it looked as if Republicans and Democrats were close to consensus on how to revive public schools. Clinton's team carried over many of the ideas of the Bush administration, including higher standards for students, more accountability for teachers and schools, and national tests.

But Republicans had deep reservations about a stronger federal role in education. Some argued that national tests would lead to a national curriculum and usurp local control. Others wanted to see billions turned back to the states as block grants or voucher programs to help families escape failing schools.

"Almost all federal education programs are still in the mode of enhancing the supply of education - increasing services, employees, and programs. But it has grown very clear that America's main education problem is not quantity and supply, it is quality and performance," says Chester Finn, a former assistant secretary of Education in the Bush administration who is now at the Hudson Institute in Washington.

In South Carolina, Riley consistently linked the term "quality" with public education. After graduating from Furman University and the University of South Carolina Law School, he joined the family law practice and "sank roots." As a legislator (1963-77), he was an outspoken leader on public education.

"It was clear, coming out of Depression days and segregation days, that we were in a hole in the deep South, and that the only way out was education," Riley says. When federal courts ordered South Carolina schools to desegregate, Riley kept his children in public school.

As governor, he persuaded the business community to support a penny increase in the sales tax to finance reforms such as merit pay and pay raises for teachers, school construction, new tests, incentives for schools that improved, and restructuring for those that did not.

He hoped to use the same approach to spark national change. The first step - higher standards - was reached in 1994 when Congress passed Goals 2000. "I saw standards as a way to keep reform moving right on. It never quits. Every year, there is a reevaluation of where you are, so you have a constant urging to move upward," he says.

But the next phase of the president's program, including national testing, school construction, and class-size reduction has stalled in Congress. He dismisses arguments that there's no way to pass such legislation in an election year. "If you believe in what you're doing, you never lose. You're just delayed," he says.

Riley's staying power is often noted, whether working through a tough personal illness decades ago or guiding a reform to completion. "When he gets his mind set on something, it's just simpler to go along with him," chuckles Terry Peterson, counselor to the secretary.

Now colleagues are asking whether Riley will stay out his term. Many had him departing after the first term, then in line for a Supreme Court nomination, and, most recently, a likely appointment as ambassador to Ireland.

"I love Ireland and the Irish people, but I'm making no plans to leave," he says. Insiders cite another reason Riley is unlikely to leave: He is indispensable to the president's domestic agenda - a first for a secretary of Education.

* Send comments to:

Richard Riley Speaks About Challenges for Educators

On teaching ...

Never has this nation been confronted with the task of teaching so much to so many while reaching for new high standards - that is the state of American education and America's first challenge.

On lowering voices ...

Whether it is the current math debate in California, the 30-year debate over school prayer, or the long-running debate over phonics vs. whole language - this unhealthy habit of thinking in dogmatic ways does our children little good.... We need to step back, lower our voices, truly listen to each other, and search for common ground.

On labeling children ...

America's schools should not be a place where we "sort" our young people into those we assume will achieve and those we assume cannot cut it. Adopting high standards for all of our young people, including the disabled and those who struggle with poverty, is a statement that no child should be ... left behind.

On Plato and new pipes ...

Plato said that which is honored in a country is that which will be cultivated there. You can go into a community and find people saying that education is very important, then go down the street and see that the school is falling down, but the prison is immaculate. Well, what is honored in that community?

On excellence ...

We need to avoid the trap that has so often befallen American education: the inability to maintain a sustained drive for excellence. Too often we get distracted by the fad of the moment. What we need, more than ever, is some old-fashioned American tenacity to stay on course.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Secretary Riley: Point Man on Education
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today