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Choice Issue Aside, Riley Receives Warm Reception

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WASHINGTON--Secretary of Education-designate Richard W. Riley was warmly received by senators at his confirmation hearing last week, where he outlined a federal role that relies more on leadership than on prescription and jousted with Republicans over the issue of school choice.

Both Republican and Democratic members of the Labor and Human Resources Committee praised the former Democratic Governor of South Carolina for his efforts to improve schools in that state and his work on national education reform.

Also last week, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the nomination of Donna E. Shalala to be the Secretary of Health and Human Services.

The Labor and Finance panels are scheduled to vote on the nominations this week, and both appear likely to be approved with little or no opposition.

Meanwhile, President-elect Bill Clinton last week named Carol Hampton Rasco, a former senior policy aide to Mr. Clinton when he was the Governor of Arkansas, to be an assistant to the President for domestic policy. Eli Segal, a senior member of Mr. Clinton's Presidential campaign, was named the director of the office of national service.

Mr. Clinton also selected Ira Magaziner, a business consultant who has worked on economic policy for the transition team, to be a senior adviser for policy development. Mr. Magaziner will focus on topics that include apprenticeship programs, worker training, and school reform.

Pressed on Choice

The only argumentative moments during the Labor Committee hearing came when Republicans pressed Mr. Riley on the choice issue. The nominee said he, like President-elect Bill Clinton, supports choice among public schools.

Mr. Riley said choice is "an important component of a comprehensive package of reforms'' that can help give parents "ownership and a feeling of control over their children's destiny.'' He also described the concept of "charter schools'' as a promising one, pleasing Sen. Dave Durenberger, R-Minn., whose state has been a pioneer in enabling groups of licensed teachers to run schools free from most outside regulations.

Mr. Riley also said, however, that "public money going to private schools pulls out the rug under public schools.''

Sen. Daniel R. Coats, R-Ind., asked if Mr. Riley could support a small pilot program to test private school choice in communities that volunteer, while Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., argued that public school choice in a small district with one high school amounts to "no choice at all.''

"Under a voucher system, choice wouldn't be an option either,'' Mr. Riley retorted. "They would just have a poorer public high school to attend.''

"I can't see spending public money to see if something is worthwhile when I'm 100 percent sure it's not,'' he said.

Mr. Riley was also asked if he favors block grants or categorical federal programs.

While "instruction is sometimes desirable,'' he responded, "my inclination would be toward more flexibility and more leadership.''

"I would hope local decisions would be positively influenced by the information we would provide,'' he added.

Similarly, when asked if the federal government should try to prod states toward equalizing resources among their school districts, Mr. Riley declined to endorse a federal mandate. While he supported efforts to increase equity in South Carolina, "and would be willing to look at options that might be there'' on the federal level, he said, he views his role more as "attempting, in a leadership way, to arouse people's feelings toward equity.''

On other issues, Mr. Riley:
Supported the concept of a national testing system, saying that "there is a clear place in a results-oriented education system for good assessments.''

But he also said he is "an outspoken proponent'' of the argument that tests should be designed and used "to help students'' rather than "to make a political point or to belittle someone.''

  • Declined to specify exactly what position the Clinton Administration would take on the volatile issue of race-based scholarships.
  • Said he supports a new program under which the government will make loans to college students directly, through their institutions, rather than guaranteeing loans made by banks. The Bush Administration opposed the idea, although President Bush signed the Higher Education Act reauthorization that contained it after lawmakers scaled it down to a pilot program.
  • Promised that Mr. Clinton's plan to create a loan program under which some loans could be repaid through community service does not imply a lesser commitment to Pell Grants and other grant programs.

Mr. Riley also said he agreed with some lawmakers that the balance between grant and loan programs has shifted too far toward loans.

Welfare Reform Backed

Ms. Shalala, who has been the chancellor of the University of Wisconsin at Madison since 1988, received a warm reception from both Democrats and Republicans at her confirmation hearing.

In her testimony, Ms. Shalala spoke at length of her commitment to health-care reform, childhood immunization, Head Start, preventive services, and improving health care for women, children, and families.

Many of the questions posed by panelists pertained to the specifics, timing, and responsibility she will assume for health-care reform.

But Ms. Shalala was also grilled sharply--especially by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y.--on how diligently she will push for welfare reforms pledged by Mr. Clinton.

Mr. Moynihan raised concern that her testimony contained only a passing reference to welfare. He also noted that the Children's Defense Fund, of which Ms. Shalala is now the chairwoman, had initially opposed the Family Support Act, the 1988 federal welfare-reform law.

She was also prodded by Sen. John D. Rockefeller 4th, D-W.Va., about rumors that political considerations may prompt the new Administration to put welfare reform "on the back burner.''

Ms. Shalala assured the panel of her "serious commitment to building on the Family Support Act.''

Assistant Editor Deborah L. Cohen also contributed to this story.

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