All Blog Posts

How Dick Riley, a Man of the People, Made the EIA Happen

If you’ve ever been lucky enough to meet Dick Riley, chances are you’ve been greeted in much the same way as the thousands of people who came before you — with a firm handshake, a warm pat on the back, and a smile that highlights the ever-present twinkle in his eyes — a twinkle that hints at the positivity and perseverance he has demonstrated throughout his career in public service. That twinkle emanates from the eye of a man dubbed by TIME magazine as one of the best cabinet members ever to serve our nation. It is the eye of a man who sees a long way, and who, in the early 1980s, saw the urgent need for a sweeping transformation of public education in South Carolina, transformation that would level up education for all the people of this state.

While Riley has achieved many notable accomplishments in his life, he often cites the passage of the South Carolina Education Improvement Act (EIA) as the one of which he is most proud. The story of how Dick Riley and his team mobilized the grassroots to gain support for the EIA is told in the Riley Institute’s newly published book, A People’s Movement. Enacted in 1984 with significant bipartisan support, the EIA utilized a one-cent state sales tax to provide millions of additional dollars put toward educational improvements in South Carolina. These monies were dedicated to boosting student performance, elevating the teaching profession, creating partnerships among schools and the community, and providing improved facilities.

According to the Senate Finance Committee, as of FY 2017-2018, the penny sales tax has generated $15.5 billion dollars for the benefit of our children. Almost 40 years later, it is still regarded as one of the most impactful pieces of legislation in the history of the state.

When he is asked about how he was able to accomplish so much, Riley typically ensures that the spotlight shines not on him, but instead on others who helped make it happen: “I’ve not done anything by myself. I’ve had a great village.”

Though he’s held many titles — secretary, governor, representative, lieutenant — “teacher” seems to be the most fitting. And even though he recently celebrated his 90th birthday, he’s far from done teaching us yet.

A People’s Movement will be available for purchase online at beginning February 10.

Kelly Gregory is the Riley Institute’s Director for Public Education Partnerships and Projects and previously taught for 11 years in South Carolina public schools. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a master’s degree in Special Education. She also holds a National Board certification as an Exceptional Needs Specialist. She can be reached at