For Two Decades, He’s Been Riley’s Right-Hand Man

By Joetta L. Sack — June 07, 2000 6 min read

Since coming to the Department of Education in 1993, he’s been a chief architect of federal initiatives such as after-school programs, community and family partnerships, and accountability plans for students and educators. Before that, he helped pass a landmark school reform law in South Carolina. And come January, he’ll be looking for a new job.

Terry K. Peterson

  • Position: Counselor to the U.S. secretary of education
  • Age: 55
  • Education: M.Ed. and Ph.D., education research and statistics, University of South Carolina, 1974 and 1978, respectively; B.S., chemistry and education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1967.
  • Previous experience: Special assistant for higher education policy, Winthrop University, 1987-1993; Education adviser for then-Gov. Richard W. Riley of South Carolina, 1979-1987; taught classes at the University of South Carolina and South Carolina State University, 1974-1979; high school chemistry teacher, 1967-1974; served two years in the Peace Corps in Brazil.
  • Personal: Married to Scott Shanklin-Peterson; with three children and two stepchildren.

While many educators could easily pin Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley to those descriptions, another official fits the bill as well. Terry K. Peterson, who has served as Mr. Riley’s right-hand man on education since the secretary was elected governor of South Carolina in 1978, is rarely seen in the public spotlight, but has had a large role in influencing education policy from the beginning of the Clinton administration.

His close relationship with Mr. Riley is evident.

“For some reason, we are almost on the exact radar screen on how to move education forward and on the issues,” Mr. Peterson, whose title is counselor to the secretary, said recently in his office overlooking Capitol Hill in the agency’s headquarters. “Because we think alike, it really helps us work together as a team.”

Terry K. Peterson, the counselor to Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, says he and his boss tend to think alike.
—Allison Shelley

Mr. Riley agreed. "[Terry]'s a wonderful person to have in the room when I’m making major education decisions,” the secretary said.

The duo first met in the late 1970s, when Mr. Riley was a state senator working on a plan to overhaul the South Carolina school finance system. Mr. Peterson, now 55, was a graduate student with a new family who was working part time as a researcher on the issue.

He can now laugh about how Mr. Riley first hired him.

Mr. Peterson had just arrived in his home state of Wisconsin after driving more than 1,000 miles, when he received a call asking him to return to South Carolina the next day to interview for the position of education adviser to the newly elected governor. He quickly flew back south, but didn’t have time to research Mr. Riley’s stands on education issues. So, he gave his own opinions; later, after he was hired, an aide to Gov. Riley told him that about 99 percent of their opinions matched.

For the first few years, Mr. Peterson had the difficult task of figuring out how to pay for a school finance plan that had been passed shortly before South Carolina entered an economic recession. Then, after Mr. Riley was elected to a second term in 1982, his aide began work on what became South Carolina’s most significant school initiative, the Education Improvement Act.

Mark D. Musick, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta, recalled being impressed with Mr. Peterson’s legislative skills in getting the EIA passed in the South Carolina legislature. He noted that although Mr. Peterson worked for the governor’s office, he was one of only two people allowed onto the floor of the House of Representatives during debates on the EIA. Mr. Peterson set up a card table and, for five weeks, sat there answering legislators’ questions on the technical aspects of the bill.

“His service to Dick Riley and loyalty to Dick Riley are just exemplary in this day and time,” Mr. Musick said.

Even after Mr. Riley left office in 1987, Mr. Peterson continued to have a role in the EIA, leading a business round table that had partnered with the schools to try to implement the new law. Until 1993, he was also the special assistant for higher education policy at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C.

Coming to Washington

Both Mr. Riley and Mr. Peterson served on President Clinton’s transition team after the 1992 election. When Mr. Riley was chosen as secretary of education, Mr. Peterson was a natural choice to become his adviser.

As counselor, Mr. Peterson researches and presents ideas to the secretary for his approval. He also travels with Mr. Riley two or three days a week.

Since coming to Washington, Mr. Peterson has helped implement initiatives such as federal after-school programs; reading, science, and arts education programs; and family and community partnerships. In addition, he has worked on efforts—with varying degrees of success—to foster higher academic standards and accountability, recruit and better train teachers, turn around failing schools, and reduce class sizes.

Mr. Peterson, a former high school chemistry teacher, has taken a particularly strong personal interest in arts education, saying he knows of many students who would not otherwise be interested in school if it weren’t for the arts.

His wife, Scott Shanklin-Peterson, a senior deputy chairwoman at the National Endowment for the Arts, “regularly shares with me the growing body of information about the importance of arts in developing the skills of creativity, communication, and persistence,” he said.

Congressional Republicans have criticized many of the administration’s proposals, arguing that they place too much control of education in the hands of the federal government. But they respect Mr. Peterson just as they do Mr. Riley, said Vic Klatt, the education policy coordinator for Republicans on the House Education and the Workforce Committee.

“He’s viewed up here as someone who has the secretary’s ear and is very influential,” Mr. Klatt said. “He’s also a very nice guy.”

‘Pragmatic Approach’

Mr. Peterson explained that he and Mr. Riley follow a four-step strategy to advance their proposals. First, convince the public that a proposal has the power to produce change. Then, explain the initiative, offering success stories and concrete ideas. Next, use public support to lobby Congress and other political players. Finally, create partnerships, such as those between K-12 and higher education, to help connect programs and ideas.

Michael Cohen, the Education Department’s assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said Mr. Peterson has brought a “very practical, pragmatic approach to the issues.” Mr. Peterson’s familiarity with the secretary and easygoing style were particularly helpful in explaining the way Mr. Riley wanted things done on a day-to-day basis at the beginning of the administration in 1993, Mr. Cohen recalled.

“He has a tremendous amount of influence, but he doesn’t flaunt that in any way,” Mr. Cohen said of the secretary’s counselor. “But he’s not just Dick Riley’s sidekick—Terry is very knowledgeable and really understands the issues and going-ons around the country.”

While both Mr. Riley and Mr. Peterson say they will stay at the Education Department until President Clinton’s second term ends in January, it’s unclear whether their partnership will continue afterward. Mr. Peterson said he hopes to find a position at a college or think tank, where he would continue working on education reform.

Mr. Riley says that if he takes on a new endeavor in education, he will ask Mr. Peterson to join him.

“He has never let me down,” Mr. Riley said. “He’s as knowledgeable about education issues as anyone I’ve ever met.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 2000 edition of Education Week as For Two Decades, He’s Been Riley’s Right-Hand Man


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