Search form

The Riley Years: Highlights of the Secretary of Education's Tenure

Share School Issues Center

Richard W. Riley will leave a record of helping make education the nation's top priority when he steps down as the nation's top educator this weekend. For nearly 30 years, Riley has focused on improving education, first in South Carolina and, for the past eight years, throughout the nation. Included: Clinton,
Kennedy, and Jeffords comment on Riley's tenure.

E-Interview with Richard W. Riley

Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley reflects on his tenure as the nation's top educator. Click here to read that

Preparing to leave the office he has occupied for eight years, Richard W. Riley says he is proud of his legacy -- improved education across the nation.

As the nation's top educator, Riley promoted initiatives to raise teaching standards and student achievement. He worked to raise academic standards in math and reading, improve instruction for poor and disadvantaged people, and help more Americans go to college. During his tenure, the Department of Education led the way in creating the Partnership for Family Involvement in Education, reducing class sizes for children in grades one to three, and modernizing old school buildings and constructing new ones.

Riley's other accomplishments include promoting grants to create smaller schools, expanding after-school programs, and bridging the digital divide by helping schools connect to the Internet with reduced access rates. He also helped win improvements in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).


President Bill Clinton was so impressed by Riley's accomplishments in South Carolina that he called on Riley twice to serve as secretary of education.

"I want to thank Secretary Riley, who has been my friend since the 1970s. We go back a long way; our families have been friends," Clinton said last week at James Ward Elementary School in Chicago, Illinois. "We've shared the joys of our children and the stories of our respected governorships. I knew he would be a good secretary of education, clearly the finest secretary of education this country ever had. I'm very grateful to him."


Image Senior Republicans and Democrats have praised Riley's performance. This week, Senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), senior ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, applauded Riley.

"Throughout his career, Secretary Riley has demonstrated outstanding leadership and ability in improving education for all of the nation's children," Kennedy said in a written statement. "Under the leadership of President Clinton and Secretary Riley, families and communities across America are now receiving needed new support to raise academic standards, reduce class size, help children learn to read, provide mentors for disadvantaged children, and make college accessible and affordable for all qualified students."

Senator Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, also praised Riley. "After 25 years in Washington, I've worked with a number of secretaries of education," Jeffords recently said. "I would say that there hasn't been anyone I've enjoyed working with more nor have seen more progress made than with Secretary Riley. He's been successful at working with members of Congress from both political parties and has been a forceful and dedicated advocate for educational excellence. Our country has been well served by his dedication."


Riley is particularly proud that under his and President Clinton's leadership, education has become the nation's top priority. Last month, Congress approved the biggest increase ever in federal education spending -- 18 percent.

"I can look at many other things that I'm very proud of, but the fact that the country has education as a top priority [is very important]," Riley told Education World in August. At that time, Riley was visiting southern schools on the Success Express bus tour.

"All categories of people -- working people, wealthy people, poor people, minorities, majorities, people on the street, people on Wall Street -- have education as a top priority," Riley said. "I think the leadership the president has provided and the [Department of Education's] serious involvement with education has helped bring that about."

When Riley achieved a position of power in South Carolina, he wanted to do something that would improve the state's education system. "I had wonderful teachers, wonderful parents, but as I got really interested in public service and public policymaking in the South -- in South Carolina -- it became very clear to me from our history that South Carolina had a weak history in terms of education," Riley said.

"African American children were systematically undereducated. We had just a small percentage of children who were college bound. It was a bad system. I realized that I had some authority as a member of the state government and state senate for ten years, and then as governor ... to do something about that."

When Riley became governor of South Carolina in 1979, the state was ranked 49th on education spending. In the eight years he served as governor, he boosted its standing to 41st in the nation for education spending.

Although he is stepping down from his position as secretary of education this weekend, he won't abandon his advocacy for education improvements. Riley told Education World on Thursday that although his plans for the future are not complete, he does plan to maintain a Washington, D.C., presence and continue his relationships with dedicated education professionals throughout the nation and the world.