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Richard Riley on Federal and State Roles in Education

Billions of dollars in federal education aid is flowing to the states, propping up budgets, saving jobs and programs, and creating powerful incentives for governors and legislatures to adopt new school policies. Now that it's campaign season, candidates for state office across the country are taking very different positions on the wisdom and necessity of that spending. As I explained in a recent story, some contenders—mostly conservatives—have described those federal efforts as wasteful and intrusive, while others—mostly Democrats—cast them as perfectly proper.

One of the people I interviewed for my story is an authority on both state and federal education policy: Richard W. Riley, who served as Secretary of Education under Bill Clinton, and as a two-term Democratic governor of South Carolina.

Riley, who now works as a senior partner at a law firm in Greenville, S.C., says he hears concerns these days about federal overreach in education. But much of that criticism strikes him as misguided.

The South Carolinian recalled how, after delivering a speech in his home state recently, he was approached by a local bank president who complained about recent efforts to establish common state academic standards, which this gentleman argued infringed on state and local guidance over curriculum.

The former governor responded by saying that common standards are crucial to improving the quality of schools across the country, and holding them to account. He also pointed out that state-level groups—governors and schools chiefs—were leading charge, not the feds (though the Obama administration supports the effort).

"I see this as a national move—not a federal move," Riley told me, paraphrasing what he told the businessman in South Carolina that day. "It does not tell a teacher how to teach."

Riley knows something about the local-state-national-federal standards debate, having been a major player in the Clinton administration's often controversial efforts to support standards in various academic subjects during the 1990s. Today's effort, known as the Common Core State Standards Initiative, is necessary, he told me, because "you can't have accountabilty without standards."

The Obama administration rewarded states in the federal Race to the Top competition for adopting common standards, and creating that carrot was a wise move, Riley said.

"Those are good incentives," he said, noting that "states [didn't] have to take that money."

Riley declined to speculate on whether supporting recent federal involvement in education was smart politics for candidates on the stump this fall. But he said there was a strong case to be made for the federal government's actions in one respect.

"It's very clear that the jobs issue is a critical issue," he said. "The federal government should be very much involved in jobs creation and retention, and jobs development."

As the lingering effects of the recession continue to batter state and local budgets, federal support for schools is critical, he added: "We'll never work our way out of it without strong support for education."

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