Education Chief-Designate Riley Worked to Improve Schools in South Carolina

December 27, 1992|By LEVONA PAGE

To people who know former South Carolina governor Dick Riley, it was no surprise that President-elect Bill Clinton chose him to be secretary of education.

The only smidgen of surprise was that Mr. Riley accepted. He's not the type to dazzle the Washington social circle nor to -- about the country making colorful, quotable speeches.

But Mr. Riley was lured away from a comfortable law practice in one of the state's biggest and most prestigious firms by his first love -- the challenge of improving education.

When he was elected governor in 1978 -- on the same day Mr. Clinton was elected governor of Arkansas -- Mr. Riley had the job of leading a state that was trying to meld a formerly segregated school system into one providing not only equality but quality.

Improvement couldn't be made without money, and Mr. Riley set about convincing business leaders that bettering education and attracting economic development were synonymous.

"He was the first person in South Carolina to absolutely make that link to the point that it was understandable and accepted and endorsed by the business community," said South Carolina banker Joel Smith.

Mr. Riley persuaded the business leaders to support a one-cent-on-the-dollar sales tax increase to pay for his school reform package. Calling the campaign "A Penny for Their Thoughts," Mr. Riley bypassed state education bureaucrats and appealed directly to PTA groups, teachers and principals.

When the tax increase and $217 million school improvement package passed the General Assembly in 1984, the state's largest newspaper said Mr. Riley had worked a miracle. The package raised teacher pay, required a high school exit exam as a requirement for a diploma, toughened discipline rules, made kindergarten attendance mandatory and increased attendance requirements for all students.

The change in South Carolina drew national attention. The Wall Street Journal noted in 1988 that Scholastic Aptitude Test scores in the state had improved by 29 points, the biggest gain in the country. School attendance and the number of high school graduates going on to college had increased.

Unlike others who pushed tax increases, Mr. Riley flourished politically. He was reelected in 1982 with 70 percent of the vote, becoming the first to take advantage of a constitutional amendment allowing the governor to serve two consecutive terms.

What Mr. Riley accomplished as governor, he did without the benefit of formal powers. South Carolina has the reputation of having the weakest governor in the country because the legislature has hoarded the control of government.

Mr. Riley compensated by holding what he later called "tent meetings." He'd gather heads of related state agencies for weekend get-togethers during which he gently preached his legislative priorities. "We'd work on these things hundreds of hours; it was not a casually done thing," he said last year in an interview.

Hard work, for Mr. Riley, became a substitute for assets he does not possess. He does not have a knack for spouting snappy quotes. His voice lacks the mellow tones that appeal to audiences. Physically, he appears frail and slightly hunched as a result of a long-ago illness.

The illness began suddenly in 1954 when he was a 21-year-old Navy lieutenant on a minesweeper control ship. He was diagnosed as having rheumatoid spondylitis, which begins with inflammation and ends with stiffness of the spine.

Through nearly 15 years of suffering, Mr. Riley said he did not take any drugs, even aspirin. He went through law school, married his longtime sweetheart, Ann "Tunky" Yarborough, and began practicing law. "I never missed a day's work from the time it first happened until the time it finally ended," Mr. Riley said.

Even after serving in the state House and Senate for 14 years, Mr. Riley had to convince voters on the campaign trail for governor that he had physical stamina. As a result, he was out on the streets earlier and stayed later than any opponent.

In a 1979 interview, Mr. Riley said, "We'd hear that people would say, 'He's a good guy, but he's just not strong enough to be governor.' That used to make me so mad."

Considering their differences, Mr. Riley and Mr. Clinton might seem an odd match. On Jan. 2, Mr. Riley will turn 60, nearly 12 years older than Mr. Clinton. Common ground for them is their commitment to improving education in two Southern states that carried the baggage of segregation.

Time magazine's deputy Washington bureau chief, Margaret Carlson, who became acquainted with Mr. Riley two years ago when he was teaching part-time at Harvard University, said Mr. Riley's appointment was "in the cards."

"He's too much of an expert not to be tapped for this," Ms. Carlson said. "He's without a personal agenda. All he wants to do is make education better. He's completely devoted, and Tunky is devoted to the same thing. Tunky and Hillary and Bill and Dick. Totally devoted to the same goal. It was inevitable."

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