TOPICS > Politics

Richard Riley

January 17, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Richard Riley was the Governor of South Carolina for two terms before joining the Clinton administration as Secretary of Education. He served in that capacity for the last eight years. During his tenure, he launched initiatives to raise academic standards, to improve education for the poor and disadvantaged, and to expand grants and loan programs to help more Americans go to college, among other things. Richard Riley joins us now. Welcome, Mr. Secretary.

RICHARD RILEY: Thank you, Ray. It’s good to be with you.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, as you get ready to leave the Department of Education, as you look back over the last eight years, what would you say is different about the American educational scene?

RICHARD RILEY: Well, a lot of things are different. I think anybody that goes to any school anywhere in the country will see that there’s more caring, there’s more interest, there’s more parent involvement, parent-teacher connections, principals being involved in learning, communities supporting education. You really see kind of an energy out there, electricity, that is very exciting. We have a long way to go obviously, but there has been a whole turnaround, and education is now at the top of everybody’s list. And everybody, from all walks of life, all sections, now are looking at education as the way for this country’s future — or their state or their community or their family. So I’m very excited about that, and you’ve seen all of that develop over the last ten years, an awful lot of it.

RAY SUAREZ: When you first came to Washington, was there a particular area that you had in mind as a place where you would like to focus the Department’s attention where now you can say, “I did some work on that and I feel it good about it”?

RICHARD RILEY: Well, I surely can. I’ve always, since the mid ’80s, been very supportive of the standards movement to identify what a child should know at various grades and various subjects, and then have the system move to make sure that’s done with the curriculum and the parent involvement and the preparations of the teacher and so forth. And so I was a very big supporter of the standards and, you know, Goals 2000 was a standards move– state controlled, but federal dollars that would go down to the state and help them set their standards movement in place. All 50 states now, in one way or another, are involved in standards. It’s moving, it’s well, and I think it’s the foundation for building tremendous strength under the public school system in America.

RAY SUAREZ: You got this job for, among many other reasons, for your time as Governor of South Carolina, and the credit you were given for bringing up education in that state. When you moved from South Carolina to the Department of Education, did you find things harder to get done? Did you find such a large institution harder to move than it was to, let’s say, work in a state Education Department?

RICHARD RILEY: Well, I did. One thing, you see a lot more partisanship here in Washington. One of my themes that I have supported all along is that partnership works better than partisanship and really coming together in kind of a consensus of what works best, and I think we are there — teacher quality, smaller classes, after school programs, safe and drug-free schools, parent involvement, those kinds of things the American people believe in, and it’s kind of a consensus that has driven now into the education system. So you have seen those develop over the years, but when I first arrived, of course, I had to get accustomed to the bigness of it and to the partisanship, and to try to work both sides of that and end up with a bipartisan approach. And we had a rough period during ’95 and ’96 when the effort to do away with the Department –but coming out of that we have had tremendous support, and this last budget is the best budget education has ever had in the history of the country, and it’s been bipartisan. So we’ve come the whole circle since we’ve been here.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, we just had a presidential election in which none of the major candidates suggested getting rid of the Department of Education. It just isn’t an issue anymore. Do you take that as some indication? Do you point to that with some pride?

RICHARD RILEY: Well, I certainly do, and I think that is very true and very accurate. Really, it’s kind of folly to think that in this day and time, when education is clearly the engine that is going to drive the country, as I said earlier, for the nation not to be involved and concerned in having national priorities, in targeting funds to help education move forward. So I think that that was kind of a folly, and I think we’ve completely passed that, and you have very few people talking about that now. And as I say, this wonderful budget we just got passed, $6.5 billion increase for education, was a bipartisan budget, and I’m very proud of that.

RAY SUAREZ: During your time as Secretary of Education, there was a tremendous emphasis on trying new things: Charter schools, enterprise schools, site-based management, more attention to home schooling. I mean, the list is a pretty long one. Did this make it tougher or more exciting to have your job at this particular time when education was in so many arguments and debates?

RICHARD RILEY: Well, and that’s reflective of this fact that the American people have gotten so into education, and that causes these stimulating ideas, and I love that. I think that is called for, and you do see things, new things coming up. Some things work better in some areas than other things do in other areas, so you have all of these exciting things taking place. The idea of charter schools, for example, is a brand-new idea. There was one charter school, I think, when we came here. Now there are around 2,000, and being a charter school doesn’t make it good or bad, but it’s an interesting idea that can be a wonderful tool for a creative school. You have to have the right people, and you have to have those things that I mentioned before, quality teachers, but it’s a very unique idea that makes it exciting and interesting.

RAY SUAREZ: So now, what kind of situation do you hand on to your presumed successor, Roderick Paige?

RICHARD RILEY: Well, and Rod Paige is a friend of mine and a good person – and he and I have worked together on education, and I’ve involved him in a commission and on things, programs with me, and I visited with him in Houston several times. So I’m very pleased at that, and he will be a good Secretary of Education. And I’ve talked to all of my staff and all of my people in the Department about it, and it’s going to be a very smooth transition. But I think we are going into a time that Dr. Paige takes the Department when all the test scores are up, when more kids are finishing high school, more are going to college, more are finishing college, SAT scores are up, math and reading scores in all three grades tested up. Everything is, in my view, moving in a very positive direction, and the standards movement is in place. And Rod Paige believes in that and has worked for it. And I think that he find things in a very good shape to really make some real progress, and I’m going to help in any way I can for him to be a successful Secretary of Education.

RAY SUAREZ: So all things taken into account, you glad you came?

RICHARD RILEY: I’m very glad I came. I can’t believe eight years have gone by. I have loved all of it, almost. You have some frustrating moments, needless to say, but it has been a grand experience. And my wife and I have thoroughly enjoyed it. And I think… I hope that we’ve made a difference.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary Riley, thanks for coming by.

RICHARD RILEY: I thank you very much.