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Riley, Colleagues 'Get Outside Beltway' To Push for Goals 2000

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Des Moines

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley took to the road last month in his first sustained effort to use the "bully pulpit'' that comes with a Cabinet post to promote the cause of education reform--and the reform program he has labored to enact.

Mr. Riley has acknowledged that he did not spend much time on public relations during his first year in office, when he concentrated on winning passage of the proposed "goals 2000: educate America act'' and other legislative initiatives, which are likely to come to fruition this year. (See Education Week, Jan. 26, 1994.)

"We've been more interested in getting it done than in promoting ourselves,'' Mr. Riley said.

A news release from the Education Department announced "an unprecedented cross-country tour, designed to talk with the American people about schools and learning,'' with a focus on "the Administration's cornerstone for education reform,'' Goals 2000.

Mr. Riley visited seven cities in seven states during the month of January, while Deputy Secretary Madeleine M. Kunin was dispatched to four more, and Undersecretary Marshall S. Smith delivered a speech on Goals 2000 in Chicago.

The stated purpose of the tour was a political one, and several visits by Mr. Riley and Ms. Kunin were scheduled in the states of key senators: Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee; Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., the chairman of the committee's Education, Arts, and Humanities Subcommittee; Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., the committee's ranking Republican; and Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a member of the labor committee and the chairman of the appropriations panel that oversees education spending.

Indeed, local politicians participated in school visits or other events on every stop on the tour.

But Mr. Riley offered another purpose for his journey.

Low-Key Style

"It's good to get outside of the Beltway and see what's really happening out there,'' he said in an interview here last month. "I think people that are out there in the schools making things happen like it when I come out and take a personal interest.''

And Mr. Riley's low-key style is more that of the interested observer he characterized himself as than that of a glad-handing politician.

The two former Secretaries known for their enthusiastic use of the bully pulpit--William J. Bennett and Lamar Alexander--never missed an opportunity to address a cheering crowd of students in a packed, balloon-filled gymnasium. In contrast, Mr. Riley prefers to watch quietly from the rear of a classroom or meet with small groups of teachers and parents.

And the message he delivered about American education was markedly different from the more pessimistic pronouncements of the two previous Administrations.

"We hear a lot of people bash the teachers and principals and schools,'' the Secretary told a group of Iowa high school students who were participating in a video teleconference. "But certainly you can be very proud.''

Mr. Riley's visit to Des Moines, on which he was accompanied by Senator Harkin, began with a brief speech to the local Chamber of Commerce.

Mr. Riley emphasized the support Goals 2000 has received from such business-oriented groups as the National Alliance of Business, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the U.S. Committee on Economic Development.

He cited the plan's emphasis on setting high standards, and quoted the English novelist George Eliot, saying high standards will influence "man for generations to come.''

Mr. Riley told the Des Moines business leaders that once the legislation is enacted, "It will pick you up right where you are, school by school, and move you along.''

Emphasis on Standards

But it was Mr. Harkin and Elizabeth Dole, the president of the American Red Cross, who were the featured guests at the dinner.

The next morning, the Secretary appeared with Mr. Harkin on a radio talk show, on which Mr. Riley again spoke of the need for high standards.

Mr. Riley and Mr. Harkin then toured Moulton Elementary School, where 97 percent of the 420 students, ranging from preschool through 5th grade, receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Gary Wegeneke, the superintendent of the Des Moines public schools, led the Secretary and the senator to a preschool classroom where parents cooked breakfast for their children, to a manipulative-mathematics class for 1st graders, and to a crisis-management class where 4th graders used skits to demonstrate conflict-resolution techniques.

In the classroom, Mr. Riley chatted with parents and students, and at one point joined in an exercise designed to teach them how to handle anger.

The Secretary told the students that when he is angry, he collects his thoughts before doing anything else.

Mr. Wegeneke noted that his school could benefit from the education-reform grants that would be distributed to states and school districts under Goals 2000.

"We have to do things at Moulton that we might not have to do at a school across town,'' he said.

But "I would hate to see the standards get too restrictive,'' he added. "That's always a concern because, in the political arena, things have a way of being not what you perceived they were going to be.''

The Goals 2000 proposal would also codify the national educational goals and formally authorize the National Education Goals Panel and a new National Education Standards and Improvement Council. To get grants, states would have to develop standards for curricular content, student performance, and the conditions needed in a school for students to achieve at high levels, known as "opportunity to learn'' standards. (See story, page 18.)

Funding Questions

Mr. Riley rounded out his visit to Des Moines by participating in a telecommunications conference with Mr. Harkin, Gov. Terry E. Branstad, and students from 45 high schools around the state.

In touting Goals 2000 and the standards-setting effort, Mr. Riley told the students that technology can play a role.

"For too long education has been the odd man out when it comes to being part of the telecommunications revolution,'' he said.

But most of the questions he received from the students concentrated on the Administration's controversial proposal to alter the Chapter 1 funding formula--an indication that someone else hoped to use Mr. Riley's visit to score some political points.

Asked by one student why the Administration sought to trim Chapter 1 dollars for rural states like Iowa--which would lose funds to urban districts under the Administration plan--Mr. Riley replied that it is hoping to direct scarce federal dollars to the areas of greatest need.

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