Reagan Picks Hispanic College Chief To Succeed Bennett

By Julie A. Miller — September 07, 1988 5 min read
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Texas educators and Hispanic leaders applaud Lauro F. Cavazos--the Texas Tech University president nominated to be the next Secretary of Education--for his distinguished record as a teacher and administrator and for his efforts on behalf of disadvantaged young people.

But some observers are also quick to criticize the politics of the appointment, which is widely viewed as a ploy to attract Hispanic voters for Vice President George Bush, the Republican nominee for the Presidency.

If Mr. Cavazos is confirmed by the Senate, as is expected, he will become the first Hispanic Cabinet member.

“Lauro Cavazos is very well respected, very well prepared, and has a history in education that is second to none,” Representative Albert G. Bustamante, the Texas Democrat who chairs the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, said in a statement. “But I think everyone understands that it is a political appointment.”

Mr. Cavazos’ spokesman at Texas Tech, Joseph Sanders, said the nominee had been eager to schedule interviews, but was asked by White House officials to make no statements to the news media until after the Senate acts on his nomination.

Mr. Cavazos would not take office until William J. Bennett steps down Sept. 20, and would have only four months in the post before the Reagan Administration ends. Speculation here is rife, however, that Mr. Bush might keep him on if he wins the election.

At a White House news conference, President Reagan denied that he had chosen Mr. Cavazos for political reasons, calling him the “best-fitted man” for the job.

“His commitment to the profession of teaching and to excellence in education, his belief in getting back to basics and things like homework, and, above all, his emphasis on education’s special importance to America’s minorities, are messages I hope will sound far and wide across the nation,” Mr. Reagan said.

Despite his contention that Mr. Cavazos was not chosen for his ethnicity, the President also seized the opportunity to laud Hispanic culture and Hispanics’ contribution to the nation.

Wright Not Considered

When Mr. Bennett announced his plans to leave his post early, he publicly recommended that Undersecretary Linus Wright be appointed to succeed him. Mr. Wright, also a Texan, told an Education Week reporter last month that he was still interested in the job.

But the Administration reportedly considered only Hispanics for the post, at the behest of the Bush campaign.

Officials at Florida International University in Miami confirmed that President Modesto Maidique had been contacted about the job, but had to turn it down when he could not ob4tain a leave of absence.

Little Known Outside Texas

Representatives of national education groups said last week that they knew little about Mr. Cavazos.

“We hear mixed comments about him,” said Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association. “We hear that he is very articulate, very good regarding getting minority students into college and keeping them there, and that he is an extremely intelligent man.”

“We also hear that he had a problem with the faculty members when he was president,” she said, referring to a dispute over a proposal to limit the number of tenured faculty at Texas Tech and force tenured professors to submit to performance reviews.

“Obviously, the Bush campaign is trying to woo the Hispanic vote,” Ms. Futrell added.

“We’re very happy about it,” said Jose Garcia de Lara, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “Mr. Cavazos is eminently qualified for the job. He’s highly respected in Texas. We hope whoever becomes President will keep him on.”

“Politically, it’s a very smart move by the Administration,” Mr. de Lara said, acknowledging that “it is obviously a political situation.”

“But that doesn’t bother us,” he said. “It’s a long time in coming, and what’s important is that the White House has come to realize the importance of the Hispanic community in this country.”

‘Consciously Apolitical’

Texas educators reacted enthusiastically, praising Mr. Cavazos’ abilities and qualifications. For example, Kenneth Ashworth, the state’s commissioner of higher education, called the nominee “an outstanding educator” and “an excellent choice.”

Congressional aides said that while Mr. Cavazos’ views on most national issues are unknown, he appears to be qualified and should have no difficulty winning confirmation from the Senate. The Labor and Human Resources Committee has scheduled a hearing for Friday.

Acquaintances of Mr. Cavazos find it ironic that his nomination is being assailed as a political move, because he is “consciously apolitical,” in the words of his spokesman, Mr. Sanders.

“I would say I’m a very good friend of his, but I don’t think I could tell you if he’s a Republican or a Democrat,” said E.C. Leslie, superintendent of schools in Lubbock, where Texas Tech is located.

“He’s not a political figure,” Mr. Leslie said. “We’re both generally conservative, but that depends on the issue.”

Philosophical Differences?

In accepting the nomination, Mr. Cavazos praised the Reagan Administration’s record on education.

“Your Administration has clearly demonstrated that education is one of its highest priorities, and the initiatives that you have begun in this vital area will be of tremendous benefit to this nation and to this nation’s future,” he said.

But state records show that Mr. Cavazos voted in the 1988 Democratic primary, and he has expressed some views contrary to those of Mr. Bennett and the Administration.

In 1983, he told a House panel that proposed cuts in student aid would hurt minority students and agreed that making Pell Grants an entitlement program was a good idea.

“At the undergraduate level, particularly at the entry level, the financial aid for minority students should come primarily from scholarships and grants,” Mr. Cavazos said at the hearing.

Mr. Bennett has advocated shifting more responsibility for paying for college to the students who benefit, and the Administration strongly opposes pending legislation that would make the Pell program an entitlement.

Favors Local Initiative

But Mr. Cavazos has expressed other sentiments that dovetail with Mr. Bennett’s, such as an assertion that educational problems are best solved by parents and educators at the local level.

Because each school has different problems, “it is easy to see why a grass-roots approach is more likely to succeed than are programs mandated at the state or federal levels,” Mr. Cavazos said at a 1985 forum on Hispanic education.

In that speech and in others, Mr. Cavazos stressed the importance of parental involvement in improving student achievement, another favorite Bennett theme.

“Until parents understand, children can’t,” he said.

And in several speeches he has given on high dropout rates among Hispanics, Mr. Cavazos has called on Hispanics to stop blaming social obstacles and governmental inaction, and work to change cultural attitudes that contribute to the problem.

“When Hispanics want to put real value on education, their dropout rate will decrease,” Mr. Cavazos told a 1983 gathering of Hispanics at a campus of the University of Texas.

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