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Education Secretary Richard Riley

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Monday, Aug. 14, 2000; 6:30 p.m. EDT

When he took over the Department of Education in 1993, Richard W. Riley found himself at the helm of an embattled agency that some members of Congress sought to abolish. In his home state of South Carolina, he shared an intense interest in education policy with another southern Democratic governor, his future boss Bill Clinton.

On the day Clinton addresses convention delegates in Los Angeles, Secretary Riley stopped by to answer your questions in a live online discussion about the administration's policy on schools and learning. The transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Free Media: Good afternoon, Secretary Riley. Sen. Lieberman supports experimental school voucher programs. How does Vice President Gore reconcile that stance with his own opposition to vouchers? And will Lieberman's view on this issue cost the campaign support from teachers' unions?

Richard W. Riley: First of all, the most important thing about a vice presidential candidate is whether they'd be a good president if they ended up in that position. The other thing is do they have those important values and principles -- believe in the role of government, etc., as you the candidate have. There would be different positions that any vice would have that would be different from the candidate. But not values. And I think those [values] are in complete sync. I think Joe Lieberman is an outstanding candidate. The vice president's position [on vouchers] is his position, and as president, his view would prevail and remain the same. He's made that very clear.

I think it shows strength in the leadership of Al Gore that he is willing to bring in a person who differs with him on certain things. That is not a point of weakness; that's a point of strength.

I think it's natural for teachers' unions and education people in general to be especially interested in education issues. I think what they're going to be looking at is the position of the vice president. And what teachers I've spoken with are very comfortable with his stances on issues like high standards in teachers, quality. He is far ahead on things like technology in teaching, and smaller classes and after-school programs -- those are what's important to educators in my judgment, and they're looking to Al Gore's positions in deciding whether or not to support him.

New York, N.Y.: Gov. Bush has said that he's running for president, not school superintendent. What role should the federal government play in education? Should it revolve only around standards? Should it tie incentives to national standards in terms of test scores and class sizes as a means of making states comply?

Richard W. Riley: The view of our administration is that education is a state responsibility and a local function. The local school district is a creature of the state, and we respect that. But we also feel that in this education era, education must be a national priority. And that the federal government has a responsibility to support state and local education efforts. Not control, not the role of the school board, but support. I think it needs to be very clear that while the great portion of dollars supporting education come from state and local sources, control of schools should be there. I do think it is important to have national goals and priorities, such as a national goal to enhance the basic skills of disadvantaged children -- Title I. IDEA -- a national priority for disabled children. National priority for children with immigrant parents -- bilingual programs. That is the role I see for the federal government -- support, not control.

Free Media: As you get ready to leave office, there has been talk about Gore looking to name fellow southerner, N.C. Gov. Jim Hunt, as your successor if he's elected president. Who are some of the leading Democrats out there on education that might make good education secretaries?

Richard W. Riley: The person who asked the question certainly names a very strong candidate -- Gov. Jim Hunt of North Carolina. He has been a leader in education for a number of years and is very well respected. A number of other people are very capable and well thought of, but I'm not going to go into naming them right now.

I agree that among those, [Gov. Hunt] certainly would be a strong candidate.

Washington, D.C.: What's the biggest difference between Vice President Gore's plans for schools and Gov. Bush's?

Richard W. Riley: I think one of the big differences would be vouchers. We have since 1995 been identifying through Title I, low performing schools. The states do the identifying -- they are deciding certain schools that have been low performing. Something has to be done with those schools. You have to make every effort to improve them. Under George Bush, he would give vouchers to all of the parents of students in a low-performing school, and that would be a bureaucratic nightmare. Most of the kids would be poor kids, because generally low performing schools are in poor communities. Most of them would end up back at the same schools, and you would find low-performing without support. It is a non-answer to a real problem.

Vice President Gore would make every effort to improve the schools, either to reconstitute them or take drastic action and close them down. If you can't correct it, close it down rather than some silver bullet solution that is all of a sudden supposed to make things better, but does nothing to improve low-performing schools.

I think that's one of the main differences. It's interesting to me that many of the proposals of Gov. Bush are very similar to proposals that we have been fighting for and supporting for seven and a half years. Such as a standards movement, quality teachers, accountability, and doing away with social promotion. However, the vice president would push for smaller class sizes, after-school programs, the GEAR-UP program, which connects up poor middle schools with colleges and universities and has mentors to work with these middle-school students through high school and college.

These are sensible programs that are in place and the vice president would work to improve them and enhance them. Technology is a very important part of education in the future. The digital divide is a concern to al of us. Poor children need teachers who understand computers and teaching with technology so that students who do not have computers in their homes can, upon completion of school, speak the language of computers.

Free Media: That was our last question today for Education Secretary Richard W. Riley. Thanks so much to Secretary Riley, and to everyone who joined us.

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