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With a Gift for Dialogue, Education Chief Gets Congress Talking

Low-key style belies his quest to change the relationship between Washington, local governments.

July 06, 1999|NICK ANDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — 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.

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