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Riley Launches Defense of Federal Role in Schools

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Arlington, Va.

Arguing that U.S. public schools are "turning the corner," Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley led a spirited defense last week of the Clinton Administration's education agenda and of public education in general.

In his second annual "state of American education" address, Mr. Riley expressed concern over criticism leveled at the school-reform movement, which he said has become "part of a political game."

"There is a difference between constructive criticism and the articulation of deeply held convictions and the tendency by some to define just about everything in public education as useless and, at the extreme, even corrupt," Mr. Riley said.

The Secretary did not name any of the detractors. But in recent weeks, three prominent appointees of President Clinton's Republican predecessors--Lamar Alexander, William J. Bennett, and Lynne V. Cheney--have spoken critically on such issues as the continued existence of the federal Education Department, the Clinton Administration's Goals 2000 education-reform strategy, and the effort to develop national academic standards. (See related stories, 01/11/94 and 02/01/95 .)

Some Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have questioned other Administration programs like national service and direct loans for college.

To blunt the attacks--especially those of Mr. Alexander and Mr. Bennett, both former Secretaries of Education--Mr. Riley was joined at Thomas Jefferson Middle School here by Terrel H. Bell, President Ronald Reagan's first Secretary of Education.

Mr. Bell is remembered for preventing the White House from pursuing a plan to shut down the Education Department and for releasing A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report that was the catalyst for much of the school-reform activity of the past decade.

Last week, Mr. Bell, too, defended the department, Goals 2000, and national standards. He cited the 1989 education summit between the nation's governors and President George Bush as an example of "the crucial uniqueness of federal action and a federal role in education."

Tone and Message

In his speech, Secretary Riley touched on many familiar themes: family involvement, the need for safe and drug-free schools, and the disconnection between youths and society.

But his remarks had a distinctly defensive tone that might not have been so strong had the November elections kept Democrats in power in Congress.

Mr. Riley pledged "an honest review" of current federal education programs as the Republican-controlled Congress pursues spending cuts. But he also said that spending on education should be compatible with deficit reduction because both aim "to secure this nation's prosperity."

In particular, the Secretary called for protection of Goals 2000, the Administration's cornerstone school-reform program, which offers grants to states and school districts that establish high academic standards. Goals 2000 provides the kind of local flexibility lawmakers are looking for, he argued, but also a measure of accountability.

Mr. Riley said the triumph last year of U.S. students in the 35th International Mathematical Olympiad--the six team members flanked the Secretary during his speech--"perhaps is an example" of the progress toward establishing high academic standards.

However, he declared his opposition to a system of national examinations and to using publicly financed vouchers to send children to private schools. Mr. Alexander proposed versions of both ideas during his tenure in the Bush Administration.

'Special Interests' Hit

Mr. Riley also:

  • Forcefully criticized "special interests"--singling out bankers involved in the student-loan program--in his call to protect direct lending from Congressional critics. "I have no problem making powerful lobbyists upset and unhappy if we can help students, do our job better, and save taxpayers money," he said.
  • Said a Republican proposal to eliminate the in-school interest subsidy on student loans would be "the largest reduction of financial aid to working American families in the history of this country."
  • Said that he, Attorney General Janet Reno, and Lee Brown, the Administration's "drug czar," would fan out across the country in the coming months to emphasize the need to combat youth violence.
  • Urged television executives and filmmakers "to stop glamorizing assassins and killers."

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