Sunday, March 27, 2011

Today's The State: "Education was the main thing" to Riley

A chill ran up my spine this morning when I read the headline in The State: "'Education was the main thing,' Integrity, tenacity served Riley as S.C. governor and U.S. education chief." After a week of high-profile obituaries, I feared the worst; when was the last time that a major South Carolina newspaper led with an education-positive headline and praised Dick Riley, arguably the most important pro-education governor in our history?

The great news is this: Happily for all of us, this was no obituary, and I sincerely hope that Dick Riley is with us for another 50 years.

The sad note running through the item, however, was the whole tone of past tense, starting with the headline itself: "Education WAS the main thing." Today, education seems to be the albatross that the legislative majority would like to kill and discard.

What was it like in South Carolina when "education was the main thing"?

The State tells us:

As a state legislator and then as governor from 1979-87, Riley placed education concerns at the center of his agenda, even as the state dealt with economic development, tight budgets, public-health needs and nuclear-waste storage policies.

To Riley, society’s problems were inseparable from an education system that desperately needed improvement. Strengthen education, he proselytized, and other challenges could be made manageable. The cost for improving education can be high, Riley acknowledged, but the cost of retreating is greater.

“Education was the main thing for me, and it should be the main thing for the current governor,” Riley says. “You still have people out there fighting for education just as much as anybody ever did. But when you get off track talking about vouchers and tax credits, when that gets to be the main concern instead of talking about more rigor and improvement in what you provide kids, it really is a diversion. ...

How did we get so far away from that way of thinking? Riley was governor only 25 years ago. Less than a generation after he led not only a movement to change the constitution to allow himself to run and serve a second term, but he convinced voters to approve a new state tax to support public education.

In his most moderate and cogent remarks, Mark Sanford never left anyone imagining that he might support public education in South Carolina. And nothing that Nikki Haley has said or done to date suggests that she has anything but contempt for public schools and the professionals giving public service in them. What happened? To both Sanford and Haley, the answer to every question regarding public schools was some variation on a single theme: "Government-run schools are an evil that should and can be eradicated with market-based principles represented by defunding public schools and redirecting funds to private schools through vouchers and tuition tax credits, and by undermining traditional public schools by allowing more charter schools to be opened, even in communities where local leaders do not want them."

Today, public schools are under attack by the state's highest leaders, including the constitutional officer whose job is to be their chief advocate, Superintendent Mick Zais. And the club used to beat them? The state can't afford them.

Riley dismissed that canard:

“Obviously, I don’t like deficits and debt. But when you get down into the weeds of what do leaders support and how they are for education, I tell people they cannot be for education unless they are willing to hurt for education. That’s the test, and you have to take some licks for it.”

Riley, captain of his high-school football team in Greenville, took plenty of licks in 1983 in battling for what ultimately was approved as South Carolina’s Education Improvement Act — a sweeping reform package that included a state sales tax increase to cover the act’s costs.

Legislative wrangling stretched from days to weeks to months, and daily debates often raged deep into the evening and early morning. While Riley and his allies coaxed members of the Legislature to their position, Riley’s wife, Tunky, sat in the State House balcony to show her support, even as she recovered from chemotherapy treatments.

That's a leader.

And what has this giant among statesmen been doing recently?

He also has been called upon for advice by leaders working to establish a public school system in earthquake-ravaged Haiti.

Unbelievable. A third-world nation suffers the most catastrophic disaster imaginable, and to rebuild itself, it works to establish a system of public schools. Here in South Carolina, leaders see no place for public education in their vision for the future -- which looks an awful lot like their vision for the distant past.

Unfortunately, I think that's why Riley's not more visible in South Carolina than he is -- and why he has time to help rebuild and educate Haiti: The present leadership has no regard for the institution of public education, and little respect for South Carolina's greatest statesman since Governor Jimmy Byrnes. In what other state would lawmakers not consult their first two-term governor, and two-term U.S. Secretary of Education, on a regular basis and use his wisdom and insight in the crafting of their plans?

Only in South Carolina.

Riley continues to be concerned about the impact of partisan battles on public education and what he sees as an antagonism among some Americans toward highly educated people, including ill will directed at public-school teachers.

He continues to prescribe a formula for improving education that includes setting high expectations for children, early childhood education, more rigorous instruction in science and math and programs to demand and develop quality teachers. Increasingly, he says, education must be more than a utilitarian outcome and must embrace school programs that involve the entire community, that enable students to learn in team settings where creativity, communication and problem-solving are required.

“Education is an alive issue. It never gets done,” Riley says. “You just cannot quit. You go and you go and you go. I never see anything as defeated. It might be slowed down a little, but never defeated. You can’t defeat something that is the right thing to do.

“There might be all kinds of interferences along the way, and they aren’t all bad, but people will ultimately move in the right direction.

“And then the right thing happens.”

I hope you're right, Governor Riley. Thanks for what you're doing.

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