Cavazos: ‘I Want To Raise Awareness’ About the Serious ‘Education Deficit’

By Julie A. Miller — November 09, 1988 6 min read
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Like his predecessor, Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos hopes to use his office to influence the national debate on education.

But an interview last week with Mr. Cavazos suggested that both his style and his agenda may differ significantly from those of William J. Bennett.

The two men hold disparate views on the federal budget, the education community, and the formation of policy. And where Mr. Bennett loved to attack, Mr. Cavazos hopes to persuade.

The new Secretary said he plans to adopt the heavy schedule of travel and speechmaking that was a hallmark of Mr. Bennett’s tenure. At the same time, he also intends to shift from criticism of the educational system’s failures to warnings about the inability of many children to reap the benefits of education.

“I want to raise the awareness of people in this country to the seriousness of the deficit--to what this nation faces in terms of lack of education--and to have people start focusing on that,” Mr. Cavazos said.

“We’ve had a history in this country that once we are aware of an issue, a problem, we will focus on it,” he said, citing the national campaign against poliomyelitis during the 1950’s. “It’s my impression that this country is not really aware of the seriousness of the problem we face when we see large numbers of our citizens dropping out of school and being illiterate.”

“I honestly believe that if I could somehow have everybody start focusing on it, on the loss of these people from our system, then at least that will be a start, a contribution,” Mr. Cavazos said.

Four More Years?

The Secretary declined to speculate on whether he might be asked to remain in office next year if Vice President George Bush is elected President this week.

During his Presidential campaign, Mr. Bush promised to name at least one Hispanic to his Cabinet if elected. Many Washington observers have speculated that Mr. Cavazos, who is of Hispanic heritage, appears to be a prime candidate to fulfill that pledge, and thus get a chance to remain in office for up to four years or more.

Mr. Cavazos has spent much of his time since he was sworn in Sept. 20 on Southwestern speaking tours that have combined educational themes with campaigning for Mr. Bush.

The Secretary acknowledged last week that political appearances have been a priority. But he denied strongly that his appointment was due solely to Mr. Bush’s desire to woo Hispanic voters.

Mr. Cavazos listed the accomplishments of a widely praised academic career, which he said made him “highly qualified” for his office. He noted that President Reagan’s transition team had contacted him about the Cabinet post in 1981.

A veteran scholar and administrator, Mr. Cavazos had been president of Texas Tech University for seven years when he received his Cabinet appointment.

“Beyond that, people can read into it what they want to read into it,” Mr. Cavazos said. “I don’t believe [it was a political appointment] for a minute, because this was not an issue we discussed.”

“If I can support the Vice President, I’m going to support him,” he said. “But keep in mind, I’ve really been out there pushing education issues.”

While acknowledging that he had voted in the 1988 Democratic primary in Texas, Mr. Cavazos said he wanted the record to show that he has also voted in Republican primaries.

“Not at the same time, of course,” he hastened to add.

At-Risk Focus

Mr. Cavazos said that, however long his tenure in office, his long-term “hopes for the department” would be to concentrate its resources and expertise on an “all-out attack” on the problem of “undereducation.”

If experts in each segment of the Education Department “could think about how they could impact [that area] and set their own goals and objectives to solve that problem, I8think that would be a good start,” Mr. Cavazos said.

But the government is only one small part of the equation, he emphasized, saying, “This place should not be dictating curriculum or specifics.”

Solving the problems of the educationally disadvantaged will take a multiyear partnership between government, educators, and the American public, Mr. Cavazos said.

“You have to involve the parents in this problem, you have to involve teachers and administrators and all the rest of it,” he said. “I don’t have a solution. A solution really must come from a lot of sources.”

“And first,” he said, “this nation must care.”

Many students who drop out of school, he noted, “see no examples in their lives where education has made a difference.” That leads to “generations of dropouts,” he observed.

Mr. Cavazos recalled that many at-risk students who have avoided dropping out have told him that, “‘Somebody cared, somebody kept me from doing that.”’

“You have to instill that attitude in parents and teachers,” he argued.

“And beyond that, we need to make sure that people, students in particular, understand the consequences of dropping out,” Mr. Cavazos said. “When a person is 16 years old it’s hard for them to focus on what life will be like when they’re 30.”

Mr. Cavazos also vowed to defend education in intra-Administration budget debates. He said he would “be quite insistent, vocal, and, I hope, persuasive about our needs,” with particular emphasis on securing more funds for compensatory programs such as Chapter 1 and for Pell Grants.

The Secretary refused to predict specifically how education would fare in the Reagan Administration’s final budget proposal for 1990. But he said that he was “very optimistic about the future.”

Attack on Loan default

Mr. Cavazos pledged to work closely with education groups. He hopes to build a consensus on issues, he said, pointing to his efforts to fashion a compromise on stuel10ldent-loan defaults. (See story on page 19.)

Mr. Bennett had proposed regulations, opposed by the higher-education community and many members of the Congress, that would allow federal officials to exclude from the loan program institutions with default rates higher than 20 percent. Mr. Cavazos, in contrast, said he would try to work out a plan with Congressional leaders and college representatives.

“I want to make it very clear that I want to work with Congress on this, and with the colleges,” he said.

While declining to elaborate on the specifics of the emerging plan, Mr. Cavazos said that “we’re not going to wait until next year.”

He was referring to an agreement reached in September between department officials and members of the House Education and Labor Committee. The week Mr. Cavazos was sworn in, the department agreed to delay further action on its regulations until next year, while House members killed a sharply different default proposal.

Mr. Cavazos’ philosophy of departmental management is also different from that of his predecessor.

Since his arrival, the Secretary said, he has worked to get department staff members and regional officials into the decisionmaking process, and has conferred a considerable degree of authority on Undersecretary Linus Wright and the assistant secretaries.

In contrast, Mr. Bennett “liked to keep the power very close by” and depended on a handful of top aides, according to Mahlon Anderson, Mr. Cavazos’ chief public-affairs aide.

Bilingual Debate

Mr. Cavazos said he had disagreed strongly in the past with the Administration’s positions on bilingual education. But he does not oppose Mr. Bennett’s proposals, approved by the Congress this year, to allow more federal funding to flow to “alternative” programs, many of which use instruction in English only.

He supported the Administration’s contention that school districts should be able to choose the teaching method that best serves their students, and to receive federal funding for a variety of approaches.

“I leave the details, I leave the techniques, I leave the procedures to the experts,” he said.

But Mr. Cavazos, who grew up in a bilingual family, stated opinions that differed sharply with Mr. Bennett’s view that bilingual education is a failed experiment.

While agreeing that students should be taught English as quickly as possible, Mr. Cavazos said he did not “think it’s even a valid discussion as to whether bilingual instruction does any good.”

“It’s so important to be able to command a number of different languages, and for an educator to say ‘forget about the other one’ is just absolutely not worth commenting on,” he added.

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