Outcry Follows Cavazos Comments on the Values of Hispanic Parents
San Antonio--Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos' mission here last week was to gather new ideas for improving the schooling of Hispanic youths and to begin building bridges between the federal government and Hispanic educators.
Instead, his own views stole the spotlight and provoked some of the strongest criticism of the Secretary to date from fellow Hispanic leaders.
The outcry came after Mr. Cavazos said in a press conference that "Hispanics have always valued education ... but somewhere along the line we've lost that. I really believe that, today, there is not that emphasis."
The remarks echo a theme he has expounded many times before, in reference both to Hispanics and to parents in general. But they were seized on here by the media and dominated much of the coverage of the first in a series of five regional hearings Mr. Cavazos has scheduled on Hispanic educational problems.
The New York Times, for example, ran a front-page story under the headline: "Education Secretary Criticizes the Values of Hispanic Parents." The San Antonio Light's headline read: "Cavazos Says Attitude Hurts Hispanics."
The stories provoked an angry response from local Hispanic leaders, who were not present at the press conference and did not hear the remarks first-hand.
"I think it's a disastrous statement for the Secretary to make," said Jose A. Cardenas, executive director of the Intercultural Development Research Association, a Hispanic research and advocacy group based here.
"It's a simple case of the victim being blamed for the crime," he added.
Norma Cantu, director of education programs for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, said Mr. Cavazos "hurt himself as far as Texas Hispanics are concerned."
"This is the second example of his views being out of touch" with local Hispanics, she said, referring to criticism of the Secretary's remarks before the Texas legislature in March, when he was widely quoted as having said that "money is clearly not the answer to [the state's] education deficit."
Education Department officials said the Secretary's remarks were misconstrued by the press.
"The comments were accurate but the headlines were off base," said Etta Fielik, the Secretary's new press spokesman. "What he's saying is that the emphasis on education is lacking, that the leadership is lacking. He's saying that until parents get more involved, we may see the same high dropout rates among Hispanics."
The remarks also should not be construed as a criticism specific to Hispanic parents, she said. "That was the issue at this forum, but he's looking for parental involvement across the board."
The controversy, she said, should not damage the Secretary's credibility among Hispanics, and may in fact prove beneficial if it "encourages discussion and gets people thinking about the issues."
Some Hispanic leaders agreed that the debate could prove helpful, but predicted that it would end up disproving the Secretary's assertion.
"Hopefully, it will rattle the rafters and start people talking about education," said Roy Mendoza, principal of Lanier High School here.
"In some cases," he said, "Hispanic parents do throw their hands up in the air and say to their kid, 'Do whatever you want."'
Elena Pell, director of program development for ASPIRA, a national organization that works to prepare future Hispanic leaders, said, "I find it hard to believe that he meant any harm. The positive side is that there will be a dialogue now about what really is going on in Hispanic families vis-a-vis education."
"Our experience," she added, "certainly does not match up to the assertion that Hispanic families don't care about education."
A national survey conducted last year by ASPIRA found that more than half of Hispanic parents expected their children to pursue education beyond a high-school diploma. More than half also said they asked their children about school every day.
Solutions 'Within the Hispanic'
Mr. Cavazos deliberately avoided airing his opinions at the onset of the hearing, saying "I have purposely refrained from putting my own views on the table, in order to keep the focus of this hearing on your ideas for improving the education of Hispanics."
In a speech, the Secretary seemed to fault the schools for Hispanic educational problems. "We know that the educational system is failing much of our Hispanic population," he said.
But when asked at the press conference what his own ideas for solving the problem were, the Secretary said "The solution itself must start in the home."
Noting that Spaniards had founded seven universities in the New World before Harvard opened its doors, the Secretary lamented the lack of emphasis today on education among Hispanics. Hispanic parents, he said, need an "attitudinal change."
"We must have a commitment from Hispanics, from Hispanic parents especially, that their children will be educated. ... In part, we Hispanics have not acknowledged that problem," he said.
"We start by caring," the Secretary added. "We really have not cared that youngsters have dropped out of school. We don't care, either teachers, parents, the business community, or elected officials. We must raise expectations and say, 'Yes, you can succeed."'
"No one really has the answer why," Hispanic educational performance is so low, he said at another point. "It may be that the solution itself is within the Hispanic person, that they will finally acknowledge that we must educate ourselves."
The Secretary has espoused similar views many times since assuming his post, and did so even before he came to Washington.
"We have, among Hispanics, a8great number of families that are impoverished economically, socially, and idealistically," he said in a 1985 speech while he was still president of Texas Tech University. "All of them want a piece of the American dream, but unlike so many of the earlier immigrants, too many of these undervalue education as a route to achieving their dream."
The bitter response to the Secretary's remarks may have been dictated by the fact that local Hispanic leaders remain incensed over his de-emphasis of money as a solution to Texas's education problems in last month's speech to the legislature.
Mr. Cavazos insisted at the press conference here that those remarks had been taken out of context, and said he believes that "some districts undoubtedly need extra money."
Both remarks "speak to an insensitivity and ignorance that cannot be overlooked," said James R. Vasquez, superintendent of San Antonio's Edgewood school district, which brought a successful school-finance suit against the state.
"We have done empirical studies in our district, which is 98 percent Hispanic, and we find fantastic support for education," he added. "But when people are hungry, when people have no clothes for their children, when their children must leave school in order to help the family, they say, 'We must take care of the necessities at the present moment and worry about the absence of education when we can get to it."'
"The terrible thing is," Mr. Vasquez said, "that he's denying what's happened to Mexican Americans in the history of this state, how we've been discriminated against in every way. It proves he continues to be very far removed from the community."
"We all deal with the media, and occasionally we get misquoted," the superintendent added, "but he's running out of alibis."
"Effective parenting does not come naturally to anybody," said Gloria G. Rodriguez, executive director of the avance Family Support and Education Program, which has been cited as a national model by First Lady Barbara Bush, among others.
"We need to make sure that families are supported and know how to help their children," she said, "not blame them for the problems."