Riley Pulls Fire Alarm on Failing Schools

Published June 1, 1999

“If a school is failing its students, we ought to react like our house is on fire.”
Education Secretary Richard Riley
State of American Education speech
February 16, 1999

While voucher opponents argue that citizens should direct their efforts and tax dollars towards improving the public schools rather than abandoning them, Education Secretary Richard E. Riley infused the school choice debate with a fresh sense of urgency earlier this year when he compared failing schools to burning buildings.

Riley’s vivid analogy pointed up the compelling need for quick and decisive action to rescue as many children as possible from harm in such failing schools. When students are trapped in a burning building, the first priority is to save them, not the building.

Riley delivered his sixth State of American Education speech in Long Beach, California, on February 16. Although he went on to disparage vouchers and to encourage only public school choice, his fire alarm was heard across the nation as governors, legislators, and philanthropists have taken up the cause of children trapped in failing public schools.

For more information …

Education Secretary Richard E. Riley’s sixth annual “State of American Education” speech, delivered on February 16, 1999, is available from the U.S. Department of Education Web site at It also is available through PolicyBot. Point your Web browser to, click on the PolicyBot icon, and search for old document #2166203 (12 pages).