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Riley Rises To The Defense

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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 Bennett, and Lynne Cheney--have spoken critically on such issues as the continued existence of the U.S. Education Department, the Clinton administration's Goals 2000 education reform strategy, and the effort to develop national academic standards. Some Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, have questioned other administration programs such as national service and direct loans for college.

To blunt the attacks--especially those of Alexander and Bennett, both former secretaries of education--Riley was joined at Thomas Jefferson Middle School in Arlington, Va., by Terrel Bell, President Ronald Reagan's first secretary of education. Bell is remembered for preventing the White House from pursuing a plan to shut down the Education Department and for presiding over the release of A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report that was the catalyst for much of the school reform activity of the past decade.

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

In particular, the secretary called for the preservation 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 not only provides local flexibility lawmakers are looking for, he argued, but also a measure of accountability.

Riley pointed to the U.S. victory in the 35th International Mathematical Olympiad (the six team members flanked the secretary during his speech) as evidence that the nation is making progress toward establishing high academic standards.

The secretary also:

  • Declared his opposition to a national examination system and to using publicly financed vouchers to send children to private schools.
  • Announced 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.
  • And urged television executives and filmmakers "to stop glamorizing assassins and killers.''

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