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Riley Laments Politicization of Education in Campaigns

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Washington

In the midst of a bitterly caustic campaign season, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley last week called on candidates for public office to "reaffirm" their support for public education and to address education issues substantively rather than through "the slick commercial" or "30-second sound bites."

Moreover, the Secretary said that this election cycle has fostered a "cynical, negative" attitude that is sending a dangerous message to young people.

"What troubles me most about the current sour mood of American politics is that, in its essence, this dog-eat-dog attitude tells us that there are no rules of civic rightness, no rules of civic discourse," Mr. Riley said in an address to students and faculty members at George Washington University here.

"The values that are increasingly defining the public estate are just about the direct opposite of the values we want our children to learn," he said. "We adults seem to have lowered our own standards."

With less than a month before voters go to the polls--to elect school board members, governors, members of Congress, and other officeholders--Education Department officials say they are concerned that the Clinton Administration's education agenda, as well as public education in general, could become tainted in an increasingly vicious and vacuous political atmosphere.

Goals 2000 Opposition

Congress passed seven pieces of education-related legislation during its most recent session. As President Clinton's popularity erodes and the specter of numerous Republican gains in the House and Senate grows larger, Administration officials fear that the President's education record could provide fodder for vote-hungry candidates.

Americans, Secretary Riley said, should recognize that bipartisan majorities insured passage of those education measures.

"This Congress repeatedly dealt with some of the most important but contentious social issues when taking up these education matters--sex education, rights of privacy, student testing, and voluntary school prayer--and in each and every case a solid center of Republicans and Democrats" provided the margin of victory, Mr. Riley said.

While he did not single out any examples of campaign-season rhetoric or take to task any specific candidates or party, Mr. Riley noted that "conservative-minded Americans" have become more vocal against the Administration's standards-based school reform strategy, embodied in the Goals 2000: Educate America Act. (See related story.)

Mr. Riley said that such people "need to be at the table."

"I urge these skeptical parents, by the same token, to pull back from making public schools a political football and give the process a fair chance," he said.

Goals 2000 provides states and school districts with school-reform grants in exchange for their agreement to set high content and performance standards.

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