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From the Ground Up: How a Grassroots Movement Became a Blueprint for Getting Things Done

In our current political climate, it feels rare that both sides of the aisle come together to address community challenges, but that is what happened during Dick Riley’s second term as South Carolina governor with the passage of the Education Improvement Act of 1984. Instrumental to improving South Carolina’s public schools, the EIA raised the state sales tax by one cent and now generates almost $900 million per year for public education.

Having won a second term as governor and spurred by his desire to improve educational outcomes for every student in the state, Riley architected what many have called one of the greatest grassroots and “grasstops” campaigns in modern history. Key strategies included:

  • Convening the Blue Ribbon Committee on Financing Excellence in Education, which was comprised of legislators, administrators, teachers, school boards and parent associations, local chambers of commerce, attorneys, and business and community leaders.
  • Charging the Blue Ribbon Committee with agreeing upon a common school reform plan – despite committee members’ greatly varied constituencies and priorities – that would underlie the planned public campaign.
  • Garnering crucial statewide public buy-in necessary to gain legislative support for the EIA, by polling citizens across the state regarding school reform efforts (polls showed that 80% of respondents supported efforts, including raising teacher salaries).
  • Organizing public forums and small group discussions with citizens across South Carolina and providing summaries of discussions submitted to the committee to help inform the reform plan.

After months spent speaking with stakeholders, making phone calls, writing letters to legislators, and providing anyone who asked with data and expertise on proposed reform strategies, the EIA passed with significant bipartisan support. Riley and his team of state and local leaders achieved what many thought impossible at the time and what, even today, seems an unlikely victory — they created a blueprint for a people’s movement to craft and pass major legislation.

Read more in the Riley Institute’s first book, A People’s Movement, available for purchase at

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