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Published in Print: September 8, 1999, as On the Bus: Riley Hits the Road With His K-12 Message

On the Bus: Riley Hits the Road With His K-12 Message

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Cheering students and teachers, marching bands, and enthusiastic local officials greeted Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley last week as his back-to-school bus tour rolled through the South.

Mr. Riley logged more than 500 miles in five states in an executive charter bus decorated to look like a traditional yellow school bus. The "Success Express" event was designed to rev up students and teachers going back to school, give tips to parents, and promote the Clinton administration's initiatives at the local level. The secretary was joined by governors and members of Congress at several of the nearly 20 stops he made.

The five-day tour began in this city in southeastern Tennessee, then rolled through Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina before ending in Charlotte, N.C., last Friday. Mr. Riley said he chose the region because, as a former governor of South Carolina, he has seen the need for educational improvements as the Southern economy moves from labor-intensive to more intellectually driven jobs. "The South has made enormous strides in education, and we have the economic prosperity to show for it," he said in a speech to kick off the tour. In a later interview, though, he noted that there are still parts of the South that have not put a high priority on education and that he hopes to change that.

Secretary Riley and his staff also wanted to call attention to schools in need--such as Litchfield High School in Gadsden, Ala., which received unfavorable publicity recently when it became the only school to fail to meet Alabama's new student-achievement standards and came under state control.

Alabama Gov. Donald Siegelman, a first-term Democrat who joined the entourage for about half a day, said Mr. Riley's visit would raise morale at Litchfield High, where the secretary was greeted by cheerleaders, a marching band, and parents and student waving balloons and homemade banners.

"These kids are so close to where they need to be," Mr. Siegelman said in an interview along the bus route. "This is a direct opportunity to highlight the need and importance of education."

"We always have the opportunities to go to model schools, and I love those ... but the important thing is to go to those schools that are making significant improvements," Mr. Riley said.

Publicity Over Policy?

Mr. Riley isn't the only Washington official taking to the highways to promote his ideas.

The House Republican Conference, led by Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma, planned a rival bus tour this week through parts of Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. The tour--which also will focus on education-- was billed as a fact-finding rather than publicity-seeking effort. And Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, also planned a back-to- school event with Republican Gov. Tom Ridge this week in Lewisberry, Pa.

Meanwhile, critics of the education secretary's tour were quick to claim that the events were short on substance and long on public relations. Here in Chattanooga, students were given a half-day off so their teachers could attend a two-hour pep rally with Mr. Riley at a local auditorium.

"We'd like to hear more specific things other than getting people involved--what are the proposals?" said Roger Abramson, a policy analyst with the Tennessee Family Institute, a conservative advocacy group in Nashville. "This was a 400-mile blah-blah tour."

The Heritage Foundation in Washington was also quick to criticize Mr. Riley's bus tour, and it used the opportunity to promote vouchers and other forms of school choice and as an alternative to current federal education policies.

"Washington should let states and local school districts spend education dollars based on local needs, as long as they boost academic achievement," Nina Shokraii Rees, the think tank's education policy analyst, said in a written statement. "Ultimately, parents should be free to choose the school that will do the best job of teaching their children."

But Department of Education officials and Democratic politicians said the tour was designed to highlight the importance of public education.

Rep. Harold E. Ford Jr., a Tennessee Democrat who serves on the House education committee, joined the bus tour briefly in his home state.

"It sends a clear message to those in the voucher movement that our public schools work," he said in an interview at Chattanooga's Howard School of Academies and Technology.

The secretary and his entourage also visited schools with school construction needs and those trying out unusual education reforms, such as Harmony Leland Elementary School in Mableton, Ga., which is experimenting with an arts-based curriculum.

"Having him here was a totally fabulous affirmation for us," said 5th grade teacher Rita L. McGlothin, whose class showed off a skit they learned to help them understand issues surrounding the Civil War.

Vol. 19, Issue 1, Pages 26,35

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