Riley Urges Expanded Federal Role in Schools

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Two short years ago, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley had to use his annual State of American Education Address as a soapbox to help protect his agency from the ax of the new Republican congressional majority.

Last week--with his agency's status in the Cabinet secure--he spent his 55-minute speech promoting President Clinton's ambitious agenda to expand the federal role in education.

"The year is 1997, the issue is education, the question is: Will we meet the challenge?" Mr. Riley said at the end of his Feb. 18 speech. "I believe we can."

That statement in Atlanta, the site of this year's address, is a stark contrast to the one Mr. Riley gave at a suburban Washington middle school two years ago.

In 1995, he invited Terrel H. Bell, President Reagan's first secretary of education, to introduce him and to argue that members of his party should back off from their calls to abolish the Department of Education. ("Riley Launches Defense of Federal Role in Schools," Feb. 8, 1995.)

"The American people believe in education, and they believe it should be made a national priority," Mr. Riley said then. "They know that education is an act of building--the building of people, the building of our nation, and the building of our future."

This year, Mr. Riley's speech lacked such defensiveness, reflecting the belief of Clinton administration officials that they won the debate over whether the federal government should be an active partner with state legislatures and local school boards.

Instead of recruiting a Republican to bolster his arguments, Mr. Riley surrounded himself with prominent Georgia Democrats such as Gov. Zell Miller, Sen. Max Cleland, and former President Carter, whose museum and international think tank provided the setting for Mr. Riley's speech. In 1980, Mr. Carter signed the law that created the Department of Education.

What's more, Mr. Riley added items to his department's plans.

He said that the Education Department will host a forum this spring where teachers, school leaders, and college officials can discuss "how we can recruit the next generation of teachers" and best prepare high school students for higher education. The focus on teacher recruitment follows Mr. Clinton's call to certify 100,000 teachers under the strict assessment of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

And Mr. Riley promised a national effort to teach students algebra in the 8th grade. Only about 20 percent of current U.S. 8th graders are enrolled in algebra.

"In the rest of the advanced world, the vast majority--if not all--students have studied algebra by the end of the 8th grade," Mr. Riley said. "I believe our students should do the same."

Tests, Scholarships Defended

Mr. Riley also used his bully pulpit to respond to criticisms of President Clinton's education agenda, which calls for national testing of 4th graders' reading skills and 8th graders' math achievement. ("Clinton Gives Top Billing to Education Plan," Feb. 12, 1997.)

"These are the basic of all basics," Mr. Riley said. "Let's not cloud our children's future with silly arguments about federal government intrusion. These proposed tests are ... a national challenge, not a national curriculum."

Mr. Riley also made the case for Mr. Clinton's college-tuition tax incentives in the face of economists' complaints that the deductions would do little more than reward students who already can afford to pay for higher education.

Since 1980, Mr. Riley said, the college graduation rate has held steady at 20 percent for students from families with incomes between $22,000 and $67,000. Over the same time, the graduation rate for those from families making above $67,000 grew from 50 percent to 80 percent.

"Much of America's working and middle class has been shut out," he argued. "We need to close that gap, and fundamentally change the expectations of many Americans who have never even considered college a possibility."

The secretary's remarks on national testing and tuition tax breaks were intended to counter criticisms of those key elements of the president's 10-point "Call to Action for Education," Mr. Riley's top deputy said.

He wants to be sure arguments for Mr. Clinton's plan are made "strongly enough," Undersecretary of Education Marshall S. Smith said in a meeting with reporters here after Mr. Riley's speech.

Congress will take up the proposals when it reconvenes.

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