Bush Pick for Labor Draws Praise and Provokes Worries

By Mary Ann Zehr — January 10, 2001 6 min read
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President-elect Bush’s selection of Linda Chavez, the president of the Washington-based Center for Equal Opportunity, to head the Department of Labor drew kudos and criticism last week from those familiar with her extensive career in education and government service.

The choice of the Democrat-turned-Republican—a former teachers’ union lobbyist and Reagan administration official—drew immediate praise from political conservatives who support her position on two pressing education-related issues: affirmative action and bilingual education, both of which Ms. Chavez opposes.

Linda Chavez

Position: President and founder, Center for Equal Opportunity, 1995-present
Age: 53
Education: B.A., English, University of Colorado, 1970.
Other experience: Lobbyist, National Education Association, 1974-1975; lobbyist, American Federation of Teachers, 1974-1977; editor, AFT’s American Educator, 1977-1983; assistant to longtime AFT President Albert Shanker, 1982-1984; staff director, U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, 1983-1985; director, White House office of public liason, 1985; U.S. expert, United Nations Subcommision on Human Rights, 1992-1996; president, U.S. English, organization promoting English as the nation’s official language, 1987-1988; senior fellow, Manhattan Institute, 1989-1994.

Those who disagree with her views on education voiced concern about Ms. Chavez’s appointment, but tried to console themselves with the expectation that her influence on K-12 policy would be fairly limited.

Tucker A. Eskew, a spokesman for Mr. Bush’s transition team, said Ms. Chavez, one of two Hispanics chosen for the Cabinet, was selected because of “her extensive experience both inside and outside the federal government.” Her “experience in education and training issues was significant” in the selection process, he said.

But he declined to discuss in detail how Ms. Chavez’s views on policy might play out in the Labor Department, except to note that her “support for affirmative access—the openness to recruiting women and minorities into positions of importance—reflects the president-elect’s point of view.”

Ms. Chavez backed an unsuccessful effort last summer to place an anti-bilingual-education measure on the state ballot in Colorado, and she has often criticized affirmative action in a syndicated column that runs in newspapers across the country.

Supporters and Critics

Among her supporters is Ron K. Unz, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has led successful campaigns in California and Arizona to pass ballot measures that curtailed bilingual education. He called Ms. Chavez’s appointment the “strongest so far on the domestic-policy side” from Mr. Bush, and he speculated that her Senate confirmation hearings could give her perspective on English-only instruction more political clout.

Larry Mone, the president of the New York City-based Manhattan Institute, a think tank where Ms. Chavez was as a senior fellow in the late 1980s and early 1990s while she wrote her first book, Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation, also lauded the secretary-designate.

“She has the talents to run an agency, combined with her ideas,” he said. “I’ve seen her work well with a variety of people, and she’s not going to pick fights just to pick fights. She’s not an ideologue by temperament.”

In a past stint in the federal government, Ms. Chavez served in the Reagan administration as the staff director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the director of the White House office of public liaison.

But officials with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund and with the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers—both of which Ms. Chavez worked for as a lobbyist in the 1970s—expressed concern over Mr. Bush’s choice.

AFT President Sandra Feldman issued a statement last week saying that Ms. Chavez, who also served as the editor of the AFT magazine American Educator in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, “has expressed views on a wide range of issues—including minimum wage, vouchers, and affirmative action—that conflict with what the AFT stands for and believes in.”

She added, “We fully share the concerns of the AFL-CIO about this nomination.” AFL- CIO President John J. Sweeney was quoted in The New York Times as saying that Ms. Chavez’s nomination was “an insult to American working men and women.”

NEA spokesman Michael Pons called the selection “problematic,” saying that he foresees an era of “union bashing consistent with which she’s written in her columns in the last 15 years that I’ve known her.”

He said that unions fear that Ms. Chavez could reinstate a requirement established under former President George Bush—and rescinded by the Clinton administration—that required employers to notify their workers of the procedures for how to leave a union. Conservatives maintain that the rule sought to enforce a U.S. Supreme Court decision on the issue—a stance that some liberals dispute.

“I don’t think there’s a more divisive person they could name from our community,” said Angelo I. Amador, MALDEF’s legislative analyst for education. Ms. Chavez has opposed many of the positions taken by that organization on education and English-only laws.

“Just because you have a Hispanic name doesn’t mean you’re walking in the Hispanic community. Her views could hurt the Hispanic community,” he asserted.

Ms. Chavez said in an interview last fall that she considers herself Mexican-American; her father is of Mexican origin, and her mother is of Irish and English descent. She noted that she grew up in an English-speaking household and isn’t fluent in Spanish.

A Limited Role?

Should Ms. Chavez be confirmed, some K-12 education issues could fall under her aegis because public schools receive some federal funding from the Labor Department through two programs designed to build an improved workforce.

The School-to- Work Opportunities Act of 1994, jointly administered by the Labor and Education departments, has provided $1.8 billion over six years for partnerships between schools, businesses, unions, and others to give students chances to learn more about the work world.

The new labor secretary would have a limited role because the program will expire in October, and the recipients for any remaining funds have already have been selected, said Christine Kulick, a Labor Department employee who is the deputy director of the national school-to-work office.

But Ms. Chavez, as secretary, would play a part in deciding whether the federal government will support any follow-up to the act, Ms. Kulick said. Mr. Clinton established a national task force last year to determine what follow-up, if any, is necessary.

“Whether or not the task force continues depends on the policies of the new administration,” Ms. Kulick said.

In addition, schools are eligible to receive funds under several programs of the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, which in 2001 will provide more than $5.6 billion, mostly for training youths and adults.

Kimberly A. Green, the executive director of the Washington-based National Association of State Directors of Vocational Technical Education Consortium, said that Ms. Chavez’s views on affirmative action could be significant in administering postsecondary funds under the act, but that they wouldn’t likely be applicable to the act’s secondary education funds.

Ms. Green said that K-12 vocational educators hope that the new labor secretary favors a coordinated effort between the Labor and Education departments to train adults and youths for the workforce. Funding for those efforts falls to both agencies.

“In an interview I heard of Linda Chavez, she indicated that a priority of hers was ensuring that there is a skilled workforce, and she looks forward to working with the Education Department,” Ms. Green said. “That was encouraging.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Bush Pick for Labor Draws Praise and Provokes Worries


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