Hundreds of University of Virginia students packed a lecture hall last spring to hear the secretary of Education hold forth on a front-line issue in American politics: school reform. They grilled him on everything from curriculum and teacher tenure to testing.
And at every turn, the bespectacled, grandfatherly Richard W. Riley responded with a measured drawl and a benign smile that took self-effacement to new levels.
"It's not our job to tell states how to run schools," he kept telling his audience.
But Riley's low-key style belies a steely determination to change the relationship between Washington and state and local governments concerning school policy.
The federal presence in education has grown, not shrunk, during Riley's 6 1/2-year tenure--the longest of any secretary in the Education Department's short history. And if Riley gets his way, it will grow even further, pushing states to move toward at least the beginnings of a nationwide system of academic standards and accountability. This year, for instance, President Clinton has embraced a proposal to force states to stop promoting children who have not learned basic skills.
To be sure, the Education secretary is not a national superintendent. Riley has no direct authority over the Los Angeles or any other school board.
Nonetheless, Riley's agency has prompted dozens of states, including California, to adopt higher academic standards with funding from a federal program launched in 1994. Delaine Eastin, California's superintendent of public instruction, credits Riley for making a behind-the-scenes pitch that convinced a skeptical then-Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, to accept the money.
Another telling example: class-size reduction. A new federal program, approved last fall, is channeling money to states to help reduce the student-teacher ratios in elementary grades. Some research suggests, and many educators insist, that children do better when they get more personal attention from teachers. Riley brokered a deal this year with California Gov. Gray Davis, a fellow Democrat, to give the state, which already had begun its own class-size program in elementary schools, some flexibility to use the money for upper grades.
Such influence is precisely what worries many Republicans. They charge that the Democratic administration has reached too far. Rather than act as a "CEO" of public education, the Republicans who control Congress say, Riley's agency should become a more passive "investor," with less sway over how states spend federal education dollars.
The very fact that the two parties are arguing over the federal role in education is itself a victory for Riley. As recently as 1995, some Republicans were pushing to abolish his department altogether. Now that talk has ebbed.
Riley and Clinton "have pushed education onto the Republican agenda," said Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. "They've made the Republican Party talk about how you actually improve schools. That's very interesting."
Budget Increased 40% on His Watch
Talk is typically what an Education secretary does best. In fact, talk is a large part of the job. The power of the Education Department, which, at 19, is the second-youngest Cabinet department in Washington (the Department of Veterans Affairs was created 10 years ago), is famously circumscribed. With discretionary spending of about $33 billion a year, the agency dispenses student aid for higher education, monitors compliance with civil rights laws and funds programs meant to boost the academic performance of the nation's most disadvantaged children. Its budget has increased by about 40% during Riley's tenure. But the secretary's most critical assignment is to work the "bully pulpit."
On that score, Riley is no William J. Bennett, an Education secretary in the Reagan administration known as a moral crusader. Nor is he a Lamar Alexander, the media-savvy promoter of school standards and choice who served under George Bush and who, for a second time, is seeking the presidency himself.
It's a safe bet that Riley, 66, a former South Carolina governor, will not run for higher office. He rarely even makes the TV talk shows. But his voice has helped shape important debates about schools at a time when the nation has turned its attention to fixing public education.
In 1994, teachers' unions heard Riley chide "the intransigence of some in the education community who see any outside reform or proposed innovation as unneeded, unwanted and unnecessary." Now many union leaders acknowledge that they must work to raise teaching standards and ensure that what children are taught is grounded in reliable research, not fads.
In 1995, the entertainment and gun industries heard Riley lament "the increasing violence by our children and the increasing violence toward our children. . . . Guns are being brought to schools as tests of manhood. . . . And a $7 movie ticket is all too often a ticket to see a killer use a gun." These points seemed prescient after the fatal shootings in April at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. Now, Congress is wrestling with how to respond to the public demand for safe schools, and Clinton has asked for an investigation of violence marketed by the entertainment industry.
In 1996, advocates of technology in schools heard Riley point out: "You can't cruise or use the Internet if you don't know how to read. And that, to my mind, is our most urgent task: teaching our children good reading habits, getting America serious about reading." In recent years, a back-to-reading movement has swept schoolhouses, statehouses and civic organizations nationwide.
As for standards, Riley has been talking about those almost nonstop since he took office in January 1993. So too did the Republicans who preceded him. But what sets Riley apart from his predecessors--and buttresses his standing with politically powerful teachers' unions--is his unswerving opposition to private school vouchers.
Bennett, who rarely misses an opportunity to slam unions or politicians cozy with them, declined to be interviewed about Riley. And Alexander would venture no criticism of his successor. But he said that the education community likes the Clinton administration because it does not "upset the apple cart."
"They don't like Mr. Bennett and me as much because we want to change the schools," Alexander said.
Finding an unqualified, unabashed critic of Riley is all but impossible. This is a man, after all, whose school reforms in South Carolina in the 1980s were so popular (including a penny-for-schools sales tax increase) that the state constitution was amended to allow him to run for a second term.
"You're not going to find a soul in this country, including deep political opponents of Bill Clinton, who is going to tell you anything but wonderful things about Dick Riley," said Chester E. Finn Jr., a former assistant Education secretary and a frequent critic of Clinton. "He has no enemy that I'm aware of."
But Riley has met with some notable failures. In 1997-98, he and Clinton suffered a major legislative defeat when Republicans blocked their proposal for voluntary national tests for fourth-graders in reading and eighth-graders in math. To Republicans like Rep. William F. Goodling of Pennsylvania, chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, it sounded too much like the beginnings of a national curriculum--anathema in a country bound by a long tradition of local control of schools.
And, as an administrator overseeing about 4,700 employees, Riley has struggled to shore up a department that critics call sluggish, unwieldy and vulnerable to political manipulation. A 1997 report by the General Accounting Office, an arm of Congress, found that chronic "management shortcomings" were hampering the department's student aid programs. Riley aides reply that improvements have helped cut the default rate on student loans by more than half since Clinton took office.
Great Expectations Make Job Tougher
Improvements in the nation's main school-poverty program, known as Title I, have been modest at best. Nearly two out of five fourth-graders in America tested in 1998 were not able to read at a level of basic ability, a figure unchanged from 1992. For students who live in poverty, the ratio of those unable to read at a basic level in 1998 was an alarming three out of five.
In an interview in his Washington office, Riley acknowledged that many parents and teachers would question his conclusion that Title I is doing "much, much better." But he insisted that standards have been raised.
"Having everybody expecting more from schools makes my job harder. You know, people didn't expect much from Title I 15 years ago. Now they expect [disadvantaged students] to do the same thing as every other kid. The bar has been lifted."
Always careful to point out the limits of his job, Riley acknowledged that questions about the state of American education will persist no matter what he does.
He handed over a magazine Clinton recently sent him as a bemused FYI. On the cover, next to a picture of an earnest schoolgirl, the headline read: "U.S. Schools: They Face a Crisis." It was an issue of Life magazine--dated Oct. 16, 1950.