Groups Laud Hispanic-Education Appointments, But Urge Vigilance

By Julie A. Miller — October 16, 1991 8 min read

Nearly a year after President Bush signed an executive order launching an initiative on Hispanic education, advisory-commission members and a permanent executive director have been appointed.

Last month’s move quelled rising anger among Hispanic leaders, who say they were on the verge of organizing a news conference to denounce the Administration’s inaction.

In interviews last week, representatives of Hispanic organizations generally praised the selection of John Florez as executive director of the initiative and expressed optimism about its future.

“For the first time, I’m hopeful that the executive order will move forward,” said James J. Lyons, executive director of the National Association for Bilingual Education. “I’m impressed by the way [Mr. Florez] intends to organize this.”

Nonetheless, some concern remains about the Administration’s commitment to improving education for Hispanic children.

Among the critics is Richard Marquez, a Dallas school administrator who served as acting director of the initiative for 10 months of his 18-month stint in the Education Department.

Because the Administration does not view the initiative as a high priority, he said in an interview, the Hispanic community should exercise vigilance to ensure that it moves forward.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of good faith,” Mr. Marquez said. “There can be a great deal of empathy and working with Hispanics at the local level by Republicans, but there’s no sympathy at the national level at all.”

But Mr. Florez, the new director, said the delay in appointing a commission is indicative not of a lack of interest on the Administration’s part, but of the slow speed at which the federal bureaucracy moves.

“The White House has to find the people, get them to agree [to serve], and that takes time, especially when some people hack out, which I understand happened here,” Mr. Florez said. “Having a turnover in the Secretary’s office certainly slowed things down as well.”

Commission Created

Led by the National Council of La Raza, Hispanic groups began pushing for an executive order on Hispanic education in 1989. In December of that year, Mr. Bush appointed a task force with a narrower scope than the groups had sought and without the authority of an executive order.

Its specific mandate was to assess the participation of Hispanics in federal education programs and to make suggestions relevant to the establishment of national education goals, which had not yet been drafted.

But the task force, led by former Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, held heatings on a broad range of issues and recommended that the President issue an executive order.

Mr. Cavazos hecame convinced that such an order was needed, and observers credit him with helping to overcome the strong objections of White House officials.

Mr. Bush issued the order on Sept. 24, 1990, creating an advisory commission on Hispanic education housed in the Education Department. (See Education Week, Oct. 3, 1990.)

The order did not require federal agencies to draft plans for increasing Hispanic participation in education programs and submit performance reports, as the N.C.L.R. had wanted.

But it did empower the coramission to report on agencies’ efforts, as well as to advise the Secretary of Education and the President on the educational status of Hispanics, on how to improve federal programs, and on ways to establish links between the department and educators and community leaders serving Hispanics.

An executive director was appointed, but left the government within a month for personal reasons.

Put on Ice

Mr. Cavazos was asked to leave in December 1990, and the initiative was put on ice, according to Hispanic leaders and Mr. Marquez.

Mr. Marquez, who was hired by Mr. Cavazos as a dropout-prevention expert, served as acting director from November 1990 until he returned to Dallas in September.

In an interview, Mr. Marquez said that his hands were tied because the White House stalled on appointing a commission, and that he was eventually stripped of the two aides he had started with.

“They down-graded it little by little, then drop-kicked it after I left,” he said, referring to the initiative’s move from the Secretary’s office to the office of elementary and secondary education.

“The only reason it got done was that we had a Hispanic at the helm of the Education Department,” he said.

Some Hispamc activists accept the Administration’s explanation that the change in Secretaries inevitably slowed down the process; others say the delay was inexcusable.

“It only took [Secretary of Education] Lamar Alexander a couple of months to put together America 2000,” said Denise de la Rosa, an education analyst at the N.C.L.R., referring to the education strategy Mr. Bush unveiled in April.

Mr. Florez suggested that Mr. Marquez could have done more to overcome bureaucratic inertia.

“You can sit around here and twiddle your thumbs,” Mr. Florez said, “or you can have a plan.”

Getting the Train Moving

Mr. Florez said he has a plan. It calls for establishing “performance standards” for federal education programs in every agency, encouraging innovative local programs serving Hispanics, producing a “report card” on Hispanic education, and stimulating Hispanics to become involved in local America 2000 activities.

Mr. Florez acknowledged that the stated objectives of the Hispanic initiative are related only indirectly to those of the Administration strategy, which calls for a national assessment system, choice experiments that include private schools, the creation of innovative “new American schools,” and community-based efforts to work toward the national goals that include published “report cards.”

“The only way this can work is if we are part of the organization’s agenda, and America 2000 is that agenda,” Mr. Florez said.

Hispanic activists generally agreed with Mr. Florez, although some expressed doubts about the Administration agenda.

Cesar Collantes, a special assistant to Jose Velez, national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said linking the initiative to America 2000 would effectively broaden its scope “to the larger education system and how it delivers for Hispanic Americans.”

Such an approach would also bring Hispanic concerns to the Administration’s attention, Mr. Collantes added.

Acknowledging that some Hispanic organizations are unhappy with America 2000, he said, “But I’ve always felt that if there is a train leaving the station you should get on.”

“If you don’t like the conductor,” Mr. Collantes added, “change him, and get the train moving in the right direction.”

Concerns Over America 2000

The aspects of America 2000 that most concern Hispanic activists are national testing and educational choice.

Opponents argue that the testing system favored by the Administration would hurt minority students, who as a group fare poorly on standardized exams.

Critics also fear that choice plans would relegate to undesirable schools children who are difficult to educate and children whose parents are not equipped to make an informed choice.

“What happens to the schools who are not chosen and to kids who don’t negotiate the marketplace?” asked Janice Petrovich, national director of ASPIRA, an advocacy organization that promotes education and leadership development for Hispanic youths. “Kids cannot be thrown out like defective widgets.”

One issue that alarmed some members of the Hispanic community at the time the executive order was issued appears to have faded.

A memorandum issued with the order stated that the Administration would encourage preschool English instruction for children who are not proficient in English. Mr. Cavazos had argued that such an approach might obviate the need for bilingual education later.

Hispanic educators objected that it takes more than a couple of years to become proficient in a new language, that such early English instruction could be developmentally inappropriate, and that it would alienate children from their Spanish-speaking parents.

Mr. Lyons said Mr. Florez did not mention early English instruction in a recent meeting with Hispanic groups.

“I think that whole idea went out with Cavazos,” Mr. Lyons said.

Enough Support?

Hispanic activists have expressed disappointment with the commission’s composition, noting that it is heavily weighted with business people and residents of the Southwest, and that it includes no members of Puerto Rican or Central American descent.

Several organizations have written to Administration officials asking that these imbalances be remedied with appointments to the seven slots the Administration has yet to fill.

But Administration officials have said they will not accede to Hispanic groups’ request to house the initiative in the Secretary’s office. Mr. Florez is in the office of migrant-education programs, and reports to the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

“We are concerned about whether [Mr. Florez] will have the support from the White House he needs to leverage support from the other agencies that need to be involved,” Ms. de la Rosa of the N.C.L.R. said. “Also, this can not be seen as just an elementary and secondary issue. It has to involve higher education, adult education, and programs outside the Education Department.”

Mr. Florez said he would not have taken the job if he were not sure of support from top officials, particularly Deputy Secretary David T. Kearns, whom he calls a personal friend.

He has cultivated other powerful friends in Republican circles during his career, which includes a stint working on civil-rights issues for Senator Orrin G. Hatch of Utah and tenures in the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Labor during the Reagan and Bush administrations.

But Mr. Florez was once assistant director for field operations for the National Urban Coalition and describes himself as “an old civilrights activist.”

“I’ll work with anyone who will help me get the job done,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 1991 edition of Education Week as Groups Laud Hispanic-Education Appointments, But Urge Vigilance