Richard Riley: I would say this is a critical year for education. We are at a turning point as a nation and that is certainly reflected in the schools. We are going through significant changes in our economy. A quality education is absolutely necessary not only to the future of our children and our families, but to the future of America. A good education also is essential for each citizen to fully participate in the changing economy and to our country's democratic way of life.
We need to see all students learn to high academic standards. They must be taught by teachers who are fully prepared to engage the material and engage their students. And we still have schools that are not safe, where students are threatened by violence and the easy availability of drugs. We also need to assure that every student has access to the computers and new technologies they will need to learn to success in the 21st century. And we need to make sure deserving students have access to financial aid for college.
Q: That's quite an agenda. Do you think most Americans are really paying any attention to education?
Riley: Absolutely. In fact, a recent USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll (January 10) found that public education is at the top of the list of public concerns. Most people intuitively understand that a quality education is the greatest gift we can give the next generation.
Q: But you've heard some members of Congress say that the greatest threat to our children is the budget deficit.
Riley: Our national budget can be balanced without creating an education deficit. President Clinton has done it—he's presented a seven-year balanced budget, as certified by the Congressional Budget Office, that protects our national commitment to education, as well as to the environment and to Medicare. Sadly, some in the Congress don't want to join the President in that effort. They prefer to hand out an indefensibly large tax cut to the very wealthy, those who need the help the least. President Clinton has proposed a tax cut for middle class families with children.
Q: But isn't it true that the federal share of education is very small, maybe six or seven percent of all spending on education?
Riley: It's true if you just look at total amounts. But the federal role is targeted to address specific issues facing American education and it is very significant. If you look at student loans and grants for college, start-up funds to make schools safer and raise education standards, funds earmarked for disabled students, students working to learn English, research that finds better teaching methods, and assistance for low-income students to learn to read and do math well, you see a very different picture. Federal funds do matter. They make a real difference in the lives of real children and families. So the budget debate is all about a difference in priorities. Education is a top priority for the president.
Q: So how can we find common ground?
Riley: We need to return to our proud tradition of bipartisan support for education. You may remember the 1989 Education Summit with President Bush and the nation's governors, both Democratic and Republican, led by then-Gov. Clinton. Working together, they developed our first set of national education goals. President Clinton, also working with members of both parties, signed major new pieces of legislation to improve education. These new initiatives are focused on making schools safer, supporting the drive for higher standards of achievement and discipline, helping students get good jobs or go on to college after high school, teaching children the basics like reading and math, and putting computers into classrooms. We've also expanded Head Start and made sure children get nutritious school lunches.
Q: Don't some member of the new Congress want to roll back these initiatives?
Riley: Some do, and I think it's because they've misread the '94 elections as some sort of license to slash education. There's no evidence that the American people want to do that. In fact, poll after poll shows that the American people want to invest more, not less, in education. They want education to be more accessible, as well. There's also been some misinformation spread around about what we're trying to accomplish, a kind of campaign suggesting that increasing education standards and education improvement efforts are some sort of nefarious government scheme or mind-control plot. It's all quite far-fetched, but it has made our work harder.
Q: You're referring to some of the things people have said about Goals 2000?
Riley: The Goals 2000: Educate America Act provides extra resources to schools, communities and states that want to raise student achievement by adopting a few simple ideas—parents should be involved in the education of their children, teachers should be well-trained, there should be clearly defined learning standards and better accountability. It's a remarkably flexible law, put in place with no new regulations. We're serious about the National Performance Review, the effort that Vice President Gore is leading, to make government cost less and work more efficiently. Goals 2000—an approach to provide student loans for college—is another. We've cut out the middleman and made getting a loan much quicker and easier. Students and financial aid administrators at the colleges love it. One student called it the best thing to come along since microwaveable brownies.
Q: But isn't Congress trying to limit direct lending to just a few school?
Riley: Yes. Frankly, they seem more interested in protecting the profits of the financial middlemen in the old system—the banks, the loan guarantee agencies, the secondary markets—than in serving the best interests of the students and families who are working hard to realize the dream of a college education.
Q: How do you think all of these disagreements will play out in the end?
Riley: President Clinton is serious about better education for America's children. He has made clear his determination to fight for the interests of parents and students. As I said before, this will be the year of decision. It's that simple, really. And that critical.
—U.S. Department of Education