Clinton Taps 'Education Governor' as Secretary

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WASHINGTON--In nominating Richard W. Riley to be the next Secretary of Education, President-elect Bill Clinton has tapped a fellow member of the fraternity of "education governors'' and a longtime friend.

In introducing the former Governor at a news conference, Mr. Clinton emphasized their mutual involvement in the reform movement--at both the state and national levels.

"In the early years of that crusade, my partner, and often my mentor, was the Governor of South Carolina,'' Mr. Clinton said.

The education community's reaction to Mr. Riley's selection was overwhelmingly positive, as education groups issued a barrage of laudatory press releases.

For example, the National Association of Elementary School Principals called the nomination "a superb choice.'' The National Education Association predicted he "will be a champion and advocate for America's public school students.''

Mr. Riley, who served as Governor from 1979 to 1987, was among the first governors to take up the cause of education reform. He began his campaign for a comprehensive reform measure in 1983.

Observers say the content of the reforms and the way Mr. Riley went about achieving them--which substantially parallel Mr. Clinton's efforts in Arkansas--offer important clues about the direction the new Administration is likely to take.

"In Riley and Clinton, you have two guys who have been working this territory for years,'' said Mark Musick, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, which Mr. Riley chaired at one time.

Like other governors, particularly in the South, Mr. Riley concluded in the early 1980's that his state's economic fortunes were inextricably tied to the quality of its education system, which ranked low on virtually every national indicator.

In a state where the governor has relatively little authority compared to the legislature, he decided that the key to success was to build a coalition.

In 1983, Mr. Riley assembled a team that included both business leaders and educators, and charged them with drafting a reform plan.

The result was a comprehensive program that included increased graduation requirements and curriculum standards, mandatory kindergarten, new remedial programs, bonuses for improving schools, increased spending on early-childhood programs, an exit examination for high school students, and state intervention in failing school districts.

But the key to holding the coalition together was a compromise between the business community and the state's two teachers' associations. The business representatives agreed to support a one-cent increase in the state sales tax and a guarantee that teachers' salaries would keep pace with the regional average, while the teachers accepted a merit-pay plan.

"We basically agreed to keep our mouths shut on [the merit-pay plan] in order to get the rest,'' said James Gilstrap, the president of the South Carolina Education Association.

Despite that coalition, the legislature trounced Mr. Riley's education proposal, primarily because of opposition to the tax increase, the largest in state history. He responded with a full-scale campaign to sell the reforms to the public and persuade citizens to pressure legislators.

As a result, the plan, including the tax increase, was enacted in 1984.

The panel that drafted it became an "accountability team'' that issues annual report cards called "What the Penny is Buying.''

"The beauty of it to me is that Dick Riley gave us an ownership interest,'' said William Youngblood, a Charleston lawyer and a coalition member, "and it has kept us committed.''

Statistical Gains

South Carolina posted substantial gains in the wake of the reforms.

Student test scores rose dramatically, and Scholastic Aptitude Test scores increased 40 points between 1983 and 1989, the fastest growth of any state. The state's college-attendance rate increased 7 percent during that period, and student-attendance rates rose. The number of students taking Advanced Placement examinations tripled between 1984 and 1991, and the number achieving passing scores doubled.

In surveys of teachers conducted by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1987 and 1990, South Carolina received higher grades than any other state for improving academic expectations and achievement.

"I think Riley changed the attitude of a lot of people in South Carolina about education, including a lot of influential people,'' Mr. Musick of the S.R.E.B. said. "What's really important is that he set up a structure that outlived him and kept the state on track.''

Conservative Critics

But Mr. Riley's critics, primarily conservatives, say his reforms focused too much on increased spending and too little on systemic change.

"We've spent a lot of money, and there's little evidence that the money was spent effectively,'' Barry Wynn, the chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, said, adding that test scores have been stagnant for the past several years.

In addition, he said, Mr. Riley "was not open to systemic change, to breaking open the barnacle-laden system'' with more far-reaching approaches like school choice.

Mr. Wynn noted that the merit-pay plan adopted in 1984 was abandoned several years later, and he charged that it was "just put on there as an ornament to get support.''

But Mr. Wynn also said Mr. Riley "is clearly the most qualified for his position'' of Mr. Clinton's nominees.

Similarly, Allyson M. Tucker, the manager of the Center for Educational Policy at the Heritage Foundation, said Mr. Riley is "not a real reformer.''

However, she said, "he is a moderate choice, and we could have done much worse.''

"Except for the choice issue,'' she added, "he's really not that different from [outgoing Secretary] Lamar Alexander.''

Mr. Alexander agreed with that assessment, noting that Mr. Riley and Mr. Clinton were among the governors who worked with him on the National Governors' Association's "Time for Results'' education initiative when Mr. Alexander was chairman of the N.G.A. Mr. Riley chaired a task force on early-childhood education.

Praising the appointment as "a wise choice,'' Mr. Alexander said in an interview, "If President Clinton and Secretary Riley approach education the same way as Governor Clinton and Governor Riley, more will continue than will stop.''

He noted that Mr. Clinton "could have come up with his own approach'' when he succeeded Mr. Alexander as the chairman of the N.G.A., but chose to continue Mr. Alexander's initiative.

The Secretary said he hopes that Mr. Clinton will similarly choose to continue the community-action portion of the Bush Administration's America 2000 school-reform strategy.

Change and Continuity

The major differences, Mr. Alexander said, are that "you will hear less about break-the-mold schools and about choice.''

"You may also hear less about giving teachers flexibility from federal rules, and less about involving the private sector in creating better schools,'' he said.

"I think you'll hear less talk about revolutions,'' Mr. Musick added. "Dick is a guy who believes in building on what you have.''

Observers who have worked with Mr. Riley predicted that his priorities would include early-childhood education, improved coordination of social services for children, and more coordination among federal agencies with interests in education, particularly the Labor and Health and Human Services departments.

In accepting the nomination, Mr. Riley spoke of reducing "the stagnation that plagues federal education programs'' and "isolation'' between sectors of the educational enterprise.

Given his support of accountability measures in South Carolina and his service on the National Assessment Governing Board, where he backed state-by-state testing, observers also expect Mr. Riley to be a strong backer of national standards and testing.

Although he will be a visible spokesman, those who know him say, Mr. Riley will not emphasize the "bully pulpit'' aspect of the job as much as Mr. Alexander or William J. Bennett did, and he will not take a confrontational approach like Mr. Bennett's.

"The first thing you learn as governor is the politics of confrontation don't work very well,'' said Thomas H. Kean, another member of the education fraternity as Governor of New Jersey and currently the president of Drew University in Madison, N.J.

Mr. Riley's low-key style and his persistence are due at least partially to his fight against a disabling back disease, observers say. He suffered for 15 years from spondylitis, a painful disorder in which the bones of the back fuse. As a result he walks with a stoop and can appear frail.

"He has a wonderful manner, very self-effacing, yet combined with a firmness that gets things done,'' Mr. Kean said.

An Education President

Observers suggested that Mr. Clinton's choice of a longtime friend with a similar education-policy background is not surprising, since the President-elect has a strong, personal interest in education and is expected to play a direct role in setting policy.

"Unlike any President in memory, this President comes to the table with a background in education policy,'' Mr. Kean said.

"He and Hillary Clinton have both been on the edge of the reform movement,'' he added. "One or both of them has been on every leading commission for the past six years.''

"Mr. Clinton comes to this with a working policy agenda,'' said Mr. Kean. "He doesn't need someone to design one for him.''

Many observers said gubernatorial experience should serve both Mr. Riley and Mr. Clinton well in building support for reform at the federal level.

In his statement praising the nomination, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, Rep. William D. Ford, D-Mich., put it this way: "Also in Governor Riley's favor--he has had to work with his legislature and the education establishment to get his programs passed. This experience will be very important when he brings Bill Clinton's programs to Capitol Hill.''

After leaving office, Mr. Riley joined a Columbia law firm. He also lectures on political science at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., his alma mater, and helped found the Southern Institute on Children and Families, a policy group focused on the needs of disadvantaged children.

The Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee is scheduled to consider Mr. Riley's nomination at a hearing this week, and it is expected to meet nothing but smooth sailing in the Senate.

Vol. 13, Issue 06

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