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Ex-Governor Forges New Federal-State 'Partnership' in Education

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WASHINGTON--Some observers see irony in the fact that a former Governor, as Secretary of Education in the Administration of another former Governor, is presiding over an effort to significantly expand the federal government's involvement in an area that has traditionally been a state responsibility.

In an interview following the release of the Clinton Administration's proposed "goals 2000: educate America act,'' Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley acknowledged that the Administration is seeking to establish a new relationship between the federal and state governments.

"It's not a program, it's a partnership. It's a new role for the federal government, instead of'' simply sending money earmarked for specific purposes, said Mr. Riley, a former Governor of South Carolina.

But Mr. Riley denied that the Administration's education-reform initiative--which would set national content, service, and performance standards and induce states to submit reform plans for federal approval--would usurp state authority.

"There is a difference, I would submit, between leadership and control,'' Mr. Riley said. "I think it's proper for Bill Clinton to be an 'education President' and provide leadership and for me as his Secretary of Education to do the same.''

Mr. Riley argued that guiding, and funding, the creation of national standards for curriculum content, school services, and student performance is "a good role for the federal government, an appropriate role.''

"It would be a very difficult role for [a district] to have; you need something bigger for that,'' he said.

But sources involved in the lengthy negotiations that preceded the unveiling of the reform bill said the National Governors' Association was concerned when Administration officials, seeking the support of House Democrats, strengthened the provisions calling for national "opportunity to learn'' standards, which are to measure the services and performance of schools. (See Education Week, April 28, 1993.)

How Strong a Mandate?

Mr. Riley said, however, that the opportunity standards would not "get off into counting things,'' and would be "rather broad teaching and learning kinds of standards, as opposed to political kinds of things.''

"It's about the ability of a teacher to teach and whether the opportunity to learn is there,'' he said.

But Mr. Riley conceded in response to questioning that it might be hard to measure "ability'' and "opportunity'' without resorting to statistics such as counts of teachers certified in their subjects.

Beyond such standards, some educators and lawmakers would like the federal government to directly mandate school-finance equalization as a prerequisite for federal funding. During the Presidential campaign, Mr. Clinton said he was interested in exploring that possibility.

Mr. Riley said he would oppose such a mandate, however, and he denied that the "opportunity'' standards are an indirect way of achieving it. He noted that they would be voluntary.

"I think it's appropriate, through opportunity-to-learn [standards], to show what ought to be out there,'' he said.

The Secretary also said he was not concerned that the national standards could help poor school districts press lawsuits seeking equalization. "If that happens, then [it's because] there's a problem,'' he said.

Minority Scholarships

In the April 23 interview, Mr. Riley also hinted that the higher-education community may be pleased with his decision on another controversial issue: the legality of college scholarships restricted to members of racial and ethnic minorities.

An uproar ensued some 2-1/2 years ago when a Bush Administration official issued a letter stating that such scholarships might violate civil-rights law unless they are intended to correct past discrimination. The Bush Administration later proposed regulations that would allow race to be one factor among many in awarding scholarships to promote diversity.

In a March letter to college presidents, Mr. Riley promised an early resolution of the issue, and said "race-based scholarships can be a valuable tool.''

When asked about his position in the interview, Mr. Riley first stated his support for the use of such scholarships to "correct past social custom.'' In response to questions, he said he also believes it is legal for a college to seek a diverse student body through the use of scholarships reserved for members of a particular race, even in the absence of past discrimination.

"Now, that's my personal opinion,'' he added. "I don't want to make a formal policy declaration here.''

'Clinton Has Asked Me To Lead'

The image Mr. Riley projects is decidedly low-key. He walks slowly and with a stoop, due to a bout with a spinal disease earlier in his life. He speaks softly and deliberately. When he enters a room, crowds do not part in the automatic recognition of an important presence. Even the Secretary's office seems muted without the virtual museum of Tennessee memorabilia that had been installed there by Mr. Riley's predecessor, Lamar Alexander.

When President Clinton chose Mr. Riley to head the Education Department, some observers speculated that he had tapped such a quiet man--who is also a personal friend from the days when both men were Governors bent on school reform--because the White House would play a direct role in setting education policy. Later, some education lobbyists suggested that the department's proposed budget for fiscal 1994 did not meet their expectations because Mr. Riley had lost out to Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala.

But Mr. Riley expressed confidence in his position within the Administration.

"People are always looking for some mystical thing that's going on,'' he said, referring to the speculation about the Administration's inner workings.

"I'm a decisionmaker,'' he continued, "and I'm here to make decisions. ... Bill Clinton has asked me to lead, and I'm going to lead. I'll lead where he wants me to lead.''

As for the budget, Mr. Riley said he wants to use this year to "build a framework for education being a higher priority'' through the reform bill. He said he would ask for more money for education in later years.

The Department's 'Team'

The Secretary also said that policy direction has originated in the department, although he added that the agency does not "make any final, major decisions without going through [the Office of Management and Budget] and the White House.''

And he hinted that his personal relationship with Mr. Clinton should be viewed as bestowing more, rather than less, autonomy on the agency he heads.

"When I make a decision, I can pretty much tell if Bill Clinton will like it or not,'' he said, "and I think he could probably do the same with me, and that's probably a good relationship to have with your leader.''

Mr. Riley chuckled when he was told that many observers think that Marshall S. Smith, an adviser to the Secretary who is to be nominated for the position of undersecretary, is directing policy behind the scenes.

"Mike Smith is a very bright team player,'' Mr. Riley said, with responsibility for "the budget and policy planning that comes from the budget.''

He said Deputy Secretary Madeleine M. Kunin, a former Governor of Vermont, "handles all the other issues,'' including management and "the programmatic end of things.''

"I don't sit around thinking 'Who's doing what,''' Mr. Riley said, "because I've got the ultimate responsibility for making decisions and I make them.''

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