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E.D.'s 'Small Potato' ResistingMantle of Champion for Asians

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Washington--As deputy director of the Education Department's office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs, Esther Lee Yao has been championed by Asian advocates as a likely candidate to push their educational priorities.

"Because of [Ms. Yao's] presence, we definitely can feel the difference" in the department, said Wei Lin Lei, president of the California Association for Asian Bilingual Education. "She maybe can do some in-house fighting for us."

But Ms. Yao is resisting others' efforts to describe her as a powerful advocate of Asian-American educational interests.

"I'm a small potato in a big field," she said.

Asian-Americans need to see their educational concerns taken up by a "long-time player" in the Congress or a Cabinet-level position, she said, adding that, currently, "we don't have any very powerful person who we can rely on who can campaign for our interests."

Nonetheless, Ms. Yao is credited with helping persuade the National Association for Bilingual Education to spotlight Asian issues at its annual conference.

And she acknowledged in an interview that she would like President Bush to create a task force to examine Asian educational needs.

She also said she would like to see more Asians involved in obemla's evaluation of grant applications and would like to see more grants given to programs for Asian students.

But, she stressed, she is employed on behalf of all language minorities, not just Asians, and has resisted pressure from Asian activists to award grants on criteria other than merit and need.

"I am very fair," she said, "and I feel people should compete."

A self-described "team player," Ms. Yao said she prefers to work within obemla in a non-confrontational manner and "will not bang the table or yell at people" for the sake of Asian interests.

"That is my personality," she said. "Maybe it is my culture as well."

Noting that numerous Asian-American teachers have told her that they do not know how to work within the American political process, she said she would like to do more to share her political experiences with education activists on the grassroots level.

"We need to have more collaboration from inside and outside," she said. "I'm on the inside, and I need the support of outside people."

Ms. Yao is a native of China's Szechuan Province who immigrated from Taiwan to the United States in 1967.

She taught 15 years at the University of Houston at Clear Lake, was involved with numerous Chinese-American organizations, and served as a member of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles before being appointed to obemla's second-highest post last July.--ps

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