Education

After Two Years, Cavazos’ Relations With Fellow Hispanics Remain Rocky

By Julie A. Miller — October 24, 1990 9 min read
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When Ronald Reagan announced in 1988 that Lauro F. Cavazos would be the new Secretary of Education and the first Hispanic to serve in the Cabinet, many in the Hispanic community expressed suspicion about the President’s motives for the election-year appointment, but pride at the achievement of one of their own.

Two years later, that pride in the former Texas university president, who was retained as Secretary by President Bush, is tempered by disappointment for many Hispanics.

“I’d say he has very few supporters left in the Hispanic leadership,” said Rafael Valdivieso, vice president of the Hispanic Policy Development Project. “It’s gotten pretty nasty, even among Republican Hispanics.”

At the same time, many Hispanic observers interviewed in recent weeks, including some who offered pointed criticisms of Mr. Cavazos, said news reports have overstated the extent of the community’s discontent. The problems that exist, they suggested, stem primarily from several inopportune statements that were widely publicized.

Dissatisfaction about the Secretary “relates not so much to his performance, but to his statements, which seem to be gratuitous and don’t square away with where Hispanics are,” said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, an umbrella group of 123 Hispanic community organizations.

Mr. Cavazos has been most sharply criticized for arguing that Hispanic parents are responsible for their children’s academic failure and stating that children who do not speak English are not ready to learn.

Some of the criticism has been virulent.

“Cavazos has greatly betrayed the confidence Hispanics placed in him,” Joaquin Blaya, the president of Univision, said in an editorial broadcast on the Spanish-language television network in August. “His views are not bad for our community. They are terrible.”

Most Hispanic observers, however, credit Mr. Cavazos with some significant successes.

They point to a more hospitable climate at the Education Department and to the quality of the Secretary’s personnel appointments. In particular, they cite Undersecretary Ted Sanders, a popular former state schools chief in Illinois, and Rita Esquivel, the California educator who heads the office of bilingual education and minority-languages affairs.

Praise for Appointments

“He’s put together an all-starteam, and that’s a fundamental way in which you evaluate a Cabinet member,” said Rudolfo Chavez, president of the National Association for Bilingual Education.

“We’ve had open access to folks at high levels, including him,” said Janice Petrovich, executive director of Aspira Inc., an organization that works with community groups to encourage Hispanic leadership.

Several of those interviewed also applauded the Secretary for recent remarks suggesting that all teachers should be bilingual.

In addition, Hispanic leaders generally praise the executive order on Hispanic education issued last month by President Bush. It creates a permanent panel to advise the Secretary on that subject and mandates efforts by all federal agencies to boost His8panic educational attainment. (See related story, this page.)

Those who lobbied for the order said Mr. Cavazos was initially not as supportive as they would have liked. But they gave him credit for helping win over White House officials after a series of hearings convinced him such an order was needed.

The Secretary undeniably has loyal supporters in the Hispanic community and continues to draw standing ovations at Hispanic gatherings.

“He still serves as a tremendous role model,” said Norma Cantu, education director for the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “He gets invited all the time to serve as a commencement speaker and as the grand marshal of parades.”

“I don’t think the situation is as bad as it’s made out to be,” said Jose A. Cardenas, executive director of the Intercultural Development Research Association, a San Antonio-based research and advocacy group. “I wouldn’t say he’s a washout and there’s widespread discontent with him. It’s a mixed bag.”

“I don’t think there’s maliciousness on his part,” Mr. Cardenas added, “but he has been careless in many statements he has made on issues relevant to the language-minority population.”

Furor in Texas

At a news conference in Denver last month, the Secretary said he had had trouble finding qualified Hispanics to serve in his department and noted Hispanics’ high dropout rate.

Ironically, his aides say, Mr. Cavazos has actually hired a record number of Hispanics.

But his Denver remarks have drawn relatively little attention in comparison with some earlier ones.

The first notable flap occurred in March, when Mr. Cavazos addressed the Texas legislature. He focused on several themes that are mainstays for him: support for parental choice and school restructuring and the view, which toes the Administration’s party line, that “money is not the answer” to educational problems.

But the legislature happened to be in a special session to revamp the state’s school-finance formula in response to a court ruling that it was unconstitutional.

“Maybe money isn’t the solution, but for poor districts seeking equitable financing, it was a hard blow,” Mr. Cardenas said. “When people, including many Hispanic people, had invested 22 years in pursuit of a constitutional system of funding, saying [money] wasn’t that important didn’t go over well.”

Three Hispanic lawmakers walked out on Mr. Cavazos’ speech, and later confronted the Secretary at a news conference. By all accounts, the criticism was leveled in unusually personal terms.

“It shocked me to hear a Hispanic, a Texan, come back and say more funding is not the answer,” said state Senator Carlos Truan, who was the primary critic.

Mr. Cavazos, showing unusual emotion, said in an interview after he returned to Washington that the lawmakers had essentially called him a traitor and had remarked about his “advantaged” upbringing.

“What advantage?” Mr. Cavazos asked bitterly. “I went to schools with dirt floors.”

At an April news conference in San Antonio, held after a public hearing there on Hispanic education, Mr. Cavazos made several comments about the need for parents to ensure that their children are educated. Sprinkled throughout the transcript are such remarks as “the solution itself must start in the home.”

“Hispanic tradition has always valued education,” Mr. Cavazos said at one point. “But somewhere along the line we lost that. I really believe that, today, there’s not that emphasis.”

The Secretary had spoken about parental responsibility before, referring both to Hispanics and to parents in general. But the San Antonio remarks were seized on by the press. The New York Times, for example, ran a front-page story under the headline “Education Secretary Criticizes the Values of Hispanic Parents.”

‘Gross Overreaction’

“It just got out of hand in the media,” Mr. Cavazos said in a recent interview.

“I’ve always said one of the most important factors for the education of Hispanics is parent involvement,” he said. “When people ask me about it, and I explain, they say, ‘Of course, you’re right.”’

Several observers agreed that Mr. Cavazos had been treated unfairly.

“If you look at the transcript [of the San Antonio press conference], it’s clear the media grossly overreacted,” Mr. Yzaguirre of La Raza said. “I would have said it different4ly, but his remarks are not something I would quarrel a great deal with.”

“Other occasions, however, are a different story,” he added.

In August, Mr. Cavazos made another controversial statement that remains a sore point for many Hispanics, particularly those involved in bilingual education.

In a speech to educators in Laredo, Tex., a town on the Mexican border, he said: “If that child cannot speak English the first day of school, that child is not ready to learn.”

During a subsequent panel discussion, several speakers took Mr. Cavazos to task. Robert Zamora, superintendent of the La Joya school district in Texas, got the strongest reaction--from both the crowd and the press--when he called the Secretary’s statement “a disabling comment.’'

Asked about the comments, Mr. Zamora said last week: “Students don’t always come to our schools speaking English, and if we have that belief in our minds, it’s going affect our programs and our whole attitude toward educating those children.”

“After Laredo, we did some talking about [Mr. Cavazos] and how his comments could effect kids, and we weren’t happy,” Mr. Zamora said.

The Secretary has stood by his statement in Laredo. He acknowledged recently that “of course” children can learn in any language, but noted that those with limited English proficiency “must spend years learning English at the same time they’re trying to learn history and math.”

He said he would like to see an emphasis on preschool English instruction. Last week, the Secretary said this would be one focus of the Administration’s Hispanic-education initiative and that he would seek an amendment to the Bilingual Education Act to allow funding of preschool programs.

Mr. Chavez of nabe, who said the Laredo statement “makes a mockery of what education is all about,” said he was worried about this new twist.

“I have no quarrel with early education,” he said last week, “but it takes five to seven years for a child to learn a language. Speed kills when we try to move kids quickly into English.”

Not ‘Professional Hispanic’

While the Secretary’s reviews for his deeds are generally better than those for his words, many Hispanic leaders say he could do more. The most common criticism is that Mr. Cavazos has not advanced proposals for innovative programs.

“We at maldef are becoming impatient in terms of him showing more leadership, because so many of the policies we’ve seen are status quo,” Ms. Cantu said, “not just in terms of more funds, but in terms of where they’re going.”

Several observers criticized Mr. Cavazos’ emphasis on parental choice, a favorite policy of the Bush Administration.

Mr. Cavazos maintains that he has already “done more for Hispanic education than any other secretary or commissioner” before him.

But he is also uncomfortable with the idea that he has a special respon4sibility to Hispanics. Members of the Secretary’s staff have often noted that he sometimes avoids a high profile on Hispanic issues because he does not want to be seen as a “professional Hispanic.”

“Clearly, I understand many of the issues in Hispanic education better than most,” Mr. Cavazos said. “But I have devoted attention to it not because I’m Hispanic but because that group needs a lot of help to enter the mainstream.”

Some observers voiced similar opinions. But others said he owes Hispanics special attention.

“In some ways, he has a special responsibility whether he likes it or not,” Ms. Petrovich of Aspira said. “We watch him more than someone else because his successes reflect on us, and his failures would reflect on us.”

And that means the Secretary’s relationship with the Hispanic community is not likely to fade as a topic of discussion--or media reports.

“Sometimes we tend to be a little more critical of people we feel we can be more critical with,” Ms. Esquivel, the obemla chief, said. “That happens in families.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 1990 edition of Education Week as After Two Years, Cavazos’ Relations With Fellow Hispanics Remain Rocky

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