Saying that Richard Riley is low-key is equivalent to saying that Bill Clinton likes fast food; both are true but vastly understate the case. Though the former South Carolina governor is passionate about his job as secretary of education, his issue has been low on the agenda for the last four years. Clinton's second term looks to be a completely different story.
Riley was born to a career in politics and public service. His father was a state party chairman and assistant federal prosecutor. An avid football player in high school, Riley later contracted an intensely painful degenerative back disease known as rheumatoid spondylitis. The disease permanently curved Riley's spine and limited his physical activities. After several years of illness, Riley turned to a career in politics.
In the South Carolina House of Representatives and state Senate, Riley developed a reputation as a "Young Turk" who pushed hard for reform. As governor of South Carolina, Riley focused primarily on education. After the South Carolina voters approved an amendment to the state constitution allowing him to run for a second term in 1980, Riley won re-election with 70 percent of the vote.
Riley worked hard to lobby support for his Education Improvement Act, described as the most comprehensive educational reform measure in the country in a RAND Corporation study. The 1984 act reformed the schools, boosting average Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and the proportion of high school graduates continuing on to college. Riley believes that school systems can be improved -- "but you have to really believe in the importance of education, be willing to hurt for it," he says.
Clinton named Riley secretary of education in 1993, after Riley helped staff the second tier of administration jobs during Clinton's transition. But as secretary, Riley had difficulty squeezing education onto Clinton's agenda and was nearly invisible for the duration of the term. Clinton's second-term plan to make education a top priority has thrown Riley's department into the spotlight and should keep it there. And it's not just Clinton's attention, says Riley. "The American people have put education at the top of their agenda," he told the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
Less than 10 percent of the nation's education budget is controlled by the secretary of education. Thus, Riley must use the power of persuasiveness, rather than the power of the purse, to push his agenda.
While Clinton has all but usurped the education spotlight, Riley has continued to toil in the background while stepping up his rhetoric. "We need to stop making excuses and get on with the business of fixing our schools," Riley said in his State of Education address in March. "If a school is bad and can't be changed, reconstitute it or close it down. If a principal is slow to get the message, find strength in a new leader. If teachers are burned out, counsel them to improve or leave the profession. If laws need to be changed, get on with it."
(Updated April 18, 1997)
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