By the end of Clinton’s second term, Riley had helped the Department of Education reach record levels of federal education spending. After eight years in the post of secretary of education, Riley was hailed in the national press as “one of the great statesmen of education” in the twentieth century and “one of the most decent and honorable men in public life.”
Governor, U.S. secretary of education. Riley was born on January 2, 1933, in Greenville, the son of Edward Patterson Riley and Martha Dixon. He attended public grade schools in Greenville and was graduated from Furman University in 1954. After college Riley entered the U.S. Navy, serving from 1954 to 1956. While in the navy he was diagnosed with spondylitis, a painful bone disease that caused his spine to curve forward and left him unable to turn his neck. He was determined to pursue an active career, however, and in 1956 entered law school at the University of South Carolina, graduating in 1959. In 1957 he married Ann Osteen Yarborough, with whom he later had four children. In 1960 he joined his father’s Greenville law firm.
In 1962 Riley was elected to the state House of Representatives as a Democrat from Greenville. He served until 1966, when he won election to the state Senate. During his ten years in the Senate, Riley was considered a “young Turk,” one of a group of progressive, reform-minded legislators who pushed causes such as judicial reorganization, home rule, constitutional revision, equitable financing for school districts, and peaceful desegregation of public schools. Riley declined to seek reelection in 1976, but he captured the 1978 Democratic gubernatorial nomination in a runoff and won the general election with sixty-one percent of the vote.
After assuming office on January 10, 1979, Riley pressed reform causes such as merit selection of the state’s Public Service Commission, limitation of nuclear waste dumping in South Carolina, aid for the medically indigent, and a change to the state constitution that would allow a sitting governor to serve a second term. The latter change gained legislative and public approval. As a result, Riley became the first South Carolina governor in history to serve consecutive four-year terms. Reelected on November 2, 1982, with some seventy percent of the vote, Riley capitalized on his popularity to launch his most ambitious reform, a comprehensive effort to overhaul the state’s public school system.
Long an advocate of public schools, Riley made education reform the priority of his second term. After the General Assembly rejected his first legislative package in 1983, Riley changed his approach and sought the ideas of thousands of South Carolinians who turned out at forums designed to solicit public input. Through intense lobbying he gained the support of business leaders and educators for a longer school day, merit pay for teachers, and school accountability measures. A keystone of the plan, which came to be known as the Education Improvement Act (EIA), was a one-cent hike in the state’s sales tax to fund the reforms. Riley’s sweeping education package received grassroots support across the state. Despite determined opposition, the General Assembly approved the EIA in June 1984. It was acclaimed as the most comprehensive school reform package ever enacted at one time and a model of education reform.
After leaving the governor’s office in early 1987, Riley joined the influential law firm Nelson, Mullins, Riley and Scarborough of Columbia, Greenville, and Myrtle Beach. However, the success of his education reform efforts cemented his reputation as one of the nation’s leading public school advocates. Following the election of former Arkansas governor Bill Clinton as president in 1992, Riley was named U.S. secretary of education.
President Clinton charged Riley with launching a national school reform effort similar to that enacted in South Carolina. He unveiled a legislative package designed to set national standards for students and teachers and provide incentives for schools to meet them. It included improvements in federal school aid for needy children, direct loans for college-bound students, and a program to encourage parental involvement in their children’s schooling. When Republicans gained control of Congress in 1994, they set out to eliminate the Department of Education. But Riley’s efforts and popular support for public education ultimately strengthened the department. By the end of Clinton’s second term, Riley had helped the Department of Education reach record levels of federal education spending. After eight years in the post of secretary of education, Riley was hailed in the national press as “one of the great statesmen of education” in the twentieth century and “one of the most decent and honorable men in public life.” In 2001 he returned to South Carolina, where he continued to advance education issues through professorships at Furman University and the University of South Carolina.
Anderson, Nick. “With a Gift for Dialogue, Education Chief Gets Congress Talking.” Los Angeles Times, July 6, 1999, p. A5.
Bagwell, Benjamin Prince. Riley: A Story of Hope. Pickens, S.C.: Pickens County Publishing, 1986.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
Broder, David S. “Under Riley, a Reversal of Fortune at Education.” Washington Post, January 19, 2001, p. A35.