As he surveyed glass cases filled with memorabilia from his life in public service, former S.C. governor and U.S. Secretary of Education Dick Riley came to a realization.
“I’ve had a fascinating life,” Riley told an assembled crowd at Monday’s opening of the Richard W. Riley Collection at the University of South Carolina’s Thomas Cooper Library. “I’ve had every kind of opportunity in public service that you can imagine. All of that has meant a lot to me. Here I have a place to go, where my family can go, and my friends, and see the very fascinating parts of my life.”
An exhibit featuring highlights of the collection, “Richard W. Riley: Statesman of Education,” opened Monday. It will remain open through Dec. 23 in the South Carolina Political Collections room at the Ernest F. Hollings Special Collections Library.
The collection includes more than 3,000 photographs, thousands of speeches with Riley’s handwritten notes and interviews with Riley and his family.
“I would hope that people who look through this collection would say public service can be worthwhile and can be exciting and interesting,” Riley, 85, said. “But if you really are going to be good at public service, you have to be committed to the public good. … You have to be willing to listen to other people and their ideas, to people who differ with you, and to understand there’s another view and to discuss that.”
Foremost on Riley’s mind was a landmark achievement of his two terms as S.C. governor: the 1984 passage of the Education Improvement Act.
“I was determined if I got a second term to make a real difference in education,” Riley said. “We had to do a lot of things. We had to get the base of the money going into public education up to where you could make all those innovations and changes possible.”
The EIA, fully implemented in 1992, established the statewide Teacher Recruitment Center. One of its initiatives, the Teacher Cadet Program, focused on recruiting high school students and led to an increase in SAT scores for students entering teacher preparation programs.
The act also aimed to increase teacher pay to meet the regional average.
“It was a people’s movement,” Riley recalled. “I had meetings all over the state. It was a real exciting time to see democratic — small d — things happen. People really insisted on the Legislature passing it.
“That was a highlight of my career, and I have been very interested in education since.”
That interest led to Riley’s relationship with then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton, and to his appointment as Clinton’s education secretary. Riley, who held that position from 1993-2001, is the longest-serving education secretary and the only person to hold that Cabinet position for both terms of a two-term president.
At a private event honoring Riley later Monday afternoon, former President Clinton said that in 1978 — the year that both Riley and Clinton were elected governors of their respective states — an article by a highly regarded academic expert tagged Arkansas as having the worst public school system in the U.S. When Clinton was elected president in 1992, the same expert wrote another article.
“It said, ‘I’ve just done a new study for the first time since 1978, and Arkansas has made more progress than any state in the entire United States … except South Carolina,’ ” Clinton said. “So I called Dick Riley and asked him to become Secretary of Education.
“I believed that the future of the country depended on our ability to educate everyone. I knew that he believed ability is evenly distributed but opportunity is not, and that the first step to closing the gap is believing that it can be closed.”
Clinton expressed his admiration of Riley’s work ethic and his fair treatment of everyone, even during the potentially touchy and politically fraught process of filling administrative positions after he was appointed.
“There’s Riley, taking a couple hundred phone calls a day, knowing that 90% of them, he’s going to have to say no to, sooner or later,” Clinton said. In that situation and in others, “He made it look easy,” Clinton said. “Always had a smile on his face, always treating people like they were people.”
Riley, currently co-chair of the National Commission on Teaching & America’s Future and a senior partner at Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough law firm, was part of the long-running legal battle that became known as Abbeville County School District v. State of South Carolina. That lawsuit spanned 20 years and spawned the moniker “Corridor of Shame” for a stretch of underfunded schools along Interstate 95.
In 2014, the S.C. Supreme Court ruled that the state had failed in its duty to provide a “minimally adequate” education to children in its poorest school districts. However, last November, the state high court ended its oversight of legislative funding of those school districts.
Riley expressed disappointment in that decision and called for a renewed focus on education.
“The money we spend on K-12 is low, obviously, in comparison with other states. It’s important to have a focus on trying to enhance that amount, but it’s important also, when you do that, to support interesting things like how, in a conservative way, do you operate schools, do you handle the administration of schools?” he said.
“The EIA was really a radical thing in its time. It was a movement, and I think we need another movement. I would like to see that right now.”