Scrutinizing the Secretary:A Slow Starter or ‘On Target’?

By Julie A. Miller — June 21, 1989 11 min read

Washington--In a recent flurry of stories assessing the Bush Administration’s first 100 days, the press was not kind to Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos.

Time magazine, for example, gave the Secretary’s efforts a “D,” contending that “a growing number of critics” believe he is “all talk and no action.”

The magazine called Mr. Cavazos “politically naive” and “a man who lacks the focus and political savvy to be an effective advocate.”

But in interviews over the past few weeks, a variety of observers painted a more balanced picture.

Some educators and politicians are indeed sharply critical. They say Mr. Cavazos has not made concrete proposals or provided forceful enough leadership and the Administration’s initiatives thus far are inadequate.

“He’s a nice guy, but he hasn’t done much,” said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “We need somebody at the helm who has a theory about what’s wrong and acts on it.”

Mr. Cavazos’ predecessor, William J. Bennett, “had a theory and acted on it, but he had the wrong theory,” Mr. Shanker said. “Now we have someone who has no theory and isn’t acting.”

“I’d like to see him use the bully pulpit for constructive purposes--putting pressure on the people who aren’t doing anything, joining forces with those who are,” said Bill Honig, California’s superintendent of public instruction.

“You have to have the commitment to do it, and you have to have the sophistication to do it, and I haven’t seen either one,” he said.

But others defend Mr. Cavazos.

“His style of leadership is one of building consensus,” said Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association. “He has a solid approach to identifying problems and bringing people together to address them.”

“I think that’s misinterpreted as a sign of weakness, when actually it’s a sign of strength,” Mr. Shannon said. “It’s misinterpreted as a lack of resolve, when he has enormous amounts of resolve. He’s lining things up and I think that will be apparent down the road.”

“It’s much too early to get on the Secretary’s case,” said Representative Bill Goodling of Pennsylvania, the ranking Republican on the House Education and Labor Committee. “It’s pretty tough when you come to this city as a sweet, naive college president and get thrown into this den of political animals.”

Several observers say Mr. Cavazos has improved a great deal during his nine months in office.

“I think he’s gained more than one grade level in the course of a school year,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, and an assistant secretary of education under Mr. Bennett.

“He’s gutsier and more decisive than he was last fall,” Mr. Finn said. “He’s still no Cabinet loudmouth--I don’t think it’s his personal temperament to be--but he’s been more effectively imparting to the nation affecting and sound ideas.”

Even some who think the Secretary has moved too slowly give him high marks for his consensus-building approach and for what is universally perceived as a genuine desire to help students and educators.

“I think the priorities he established were right on target,” said Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. “I was greatly impressed when he started by talking not about an ideological agenda but about children, especially the least advantaged.”

“I was also impressed when he recognized that we’re not going to make any progress by driving divisions between groups,” Mr. Boyer added. “I just don’t think we’ve seen as yet a bold or significant follow-through on that agenda.”

he Secretary himself thinks he and the department are “right on target.” In an interview last week, Mr. Cavazos said he has approached his job in stages, moving first to draw attention to the nation’s “education deficit” and seek advice from educators, politicians, and other interested parties.

“There are a lot of positive things going on, but I don’t think you’re going to turn this thing around overnight,” he said. “I’ve already publicly stated that I don’t think we will turn this thing around until the turn of the century.”

The most pervasive criticism is that Mr. Cavazos does not have a fo2p4cused program of policy initiatives.

“He’s really tried to get a partnership established so that the federal government, the states, and localities can get together and address education issues,” said Gordon M. Ambach, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “But he’s been quite cautious in actually moving on his priorities.”

“He’s spoken a great deal, for example, about concern for the student at risk, the disadvantaged student, about concern for recruiting more minority teachers,” Mr. Ambach said. “But I don’t think these issues have been translated into particularly concrete initiatives and action plans.”

Instead of merely decrying “stagnation” in the nation’s educational performance, as he recently did in unveiling the Education Department’s annual “wall chart,” Mr. Cavazos should set specific goals for improvement, Mr. Honig argued.

“He should say, ‘We’re going to get the adept reading rate up from 40 percent to 67 percent, and you’re all going to do your share,”’ Mr. Honig said. “That’s leadership.”

Many members of the education community, as well as Democrats on Capitol Hill, say they are disappointed that Mr. Cavazos and the self-proclaimed “education President” have not placed more emphasis--and committed more federal money--to what they call “tried and true” programs.

They note that the Bush budget does not provide enough for education programs to keep up with inflation.

“We have not seen commitments to strengthen Head Start or Chapter 1, where only a fraction of the children who need it are being served,” Mr. Boyer said. “Granted, money isn’t everything, but there are great inequities out there.”

Most education advocates agree that Mr. Bush’s much-touted package of education initiatives includes some good ideas, like rewarding exemplary schools and teachers and providing science scholarships. But they say these initiatives are far from a panacea, and they fear existing programs will be short-changed to pay for the new ones.

“They’re not implementing the 1988 School Improvement Act, they’re not talking about it, but are instead trying to sell a proposal Mr. Cavazos calls choice, which is going to help mainly the children of affluent families,” said Representative Augustus F. Hawkins of California, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

“Rewarding good schools is all right, but it doesn’t help those who need it most,” he said.

The Secretary points out that when he revised the budget plan prepared by his predecessor, he shifted $750 million into programs aimed at the disadvantaged, although the bottom line did not change.

“There’s only so much he can do with the budget constraints as they are,” an aide to Mr. Cavazos added. “After all, he asked for a billion more, and the Office of Management and Budget didn’t give it to him.”

As to the alleged lack of initiatives, Mr. Cavazos says he has begun to talk about specific solutions and suggests that his critics have not been listening.

“The problem is that people don’t realize how comprehensive a pro8gram we’re talking about,” he said. “We have proposed an entire restructuring of the elementary and secondary school system, and that’s a pretty concrete proposal.”

“And on top of that, I’ve said, ‘You do it this way,”’ Mr. Cavazos said, citing as measures he has advocated “getting every citizen involved,” increasing parental choice and parental involvement in schools, alternative certification for teachers, “more rigorous” curricula, early-childhood-education programs, and giving educators more flexibility in exchange for accountability for student achievement.

“If you’re going to say that’s not proposing anything, then I guess I’m running out of ideas,” Mr. Cavazos said.

He lists as major achievements a package of proposals to reduce student-loan defaults, a set of initiatives promoting parental choice, a proposal in the works to allow schools more flexibility under federal regulations, a proposal for reauthorizing vocational-education programs, and the President’s education package.

Several observers assert that the blame for any lack of action belongs to President Bush and not to Mr. Cavazos.

“The President is still struggling with how best to use his bully-pulpit role,” said Marc S. Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, adding that Mr. Bush acknowledged this dilemma at a recent luncheon.

“Many people are urging him to take a high-profile role and he’s afraid if he does it would ... result in demands for an increase in federal funds,” Mr. Tucker said.

“The President keeps talking about being the education President but hasn’t made it clear what it really means,” said Gary L. Bauer, president of the Family Resource Council and an undersecretary of education under Mr. Bennett. “The Secretary is under a particular disadvantage in trying to deal with these issues without knowing what the White House wants.”

“Part of what’s falling on Mr. Cavazos’ head might better be aimed at those above him,” Mr. Bauer said.

But other educators and Capitol Hill sources speculate that Mr. Cavazos may be hampered by too much White House guidance, rather than too little.

“He tells us one thing and omb tells him another,” Mr. Hawkins said. “They are dictating policy.”

“He’s not part of the Bush team and never will be,” said an education lobbyist, citing as evidence of the Secretary’s lack of influence the President’s plans to appoint an advisory panel on education and previous plans to name a single education adviser. “He’s caught being here when Bush wants to be the person taking the bow for education.”

“The President’s education adviser is the Secretary of Education,” said Mr. Cavazos, who added that he has a good relationship with White House officials and is consulted as much as other Cabinet officers.

“You know, sometimes when [a proposal] is held up at omb, it’s because you’re holding firm,” he said.

Many observers said that the Bush Administration has been much slower than previous administrations in making appointments in all federal agencies.

Lack of senior staff “is a major handicap,” said Mr. Finn, “a serious problem not of Mr. Cavazos’ making.”

The Secretary’s appointments, particularly Undersecretary Ted Sanders, have generally been praised by educators, who are pleased that he has tapped professionals with experience in education.

But he has named only five top officials, one of them a Reagan Administration holdover.

Terrel H. Bell had named nine top officials within six months of his 1981 appointment, and Mr. Bennett replaced seven top appointees in his first eight months.

A review of news reports indicates that Mr. Cavazos’ predecessors did not announce significantly more major initiatives in their first nine months in office than he has--even though Mr. Cavazos spent much of his first few months campaigning for George Bush. (See box on this page.)

But unlike the current Secretary, both Mr. Bennett and Mr. Bell became embroiled in highly visible controversies early in their terms.

Mr. Bell, for example, defended controversial Reagan Administration proposals, like abolishing the Education Department.

Mr. Bennett’s combative style emerged at his first press conference, when he made the now-infamous comment that affluent college students could respond to aid cuts with “stereo divestiture, automobile divestiture, or three-weeks-at-the-beach divestiture.”

Mr. Bennett campaigned in similar style for tuition tax credits and the teaching of “Judeo-Christian” values in schools.

In addition, he was forced to fire two aides after it was revealed that they had called for abolition of all federal education programs and one had contended that aiding the handicapped “selfishly” diverted money from other students.

Some observers think Mr. Cavazos has been the target of criticism more because he followed the highly visible, media-savvy Mr. Bennett than because of his own failings.

“People are used to a showman, and he’s just a solid scholar,” Mr. Shannon of the nsba said. “If they’re looking for a sword-swallowing act, they won’t find it in him.”

“The press doesn’t like considered judgments presented in a straightforward and rational way,” said Robert Atwell, president of the American Council on Education. “The press seems to prefer outrageous statements.”

Mr. Cavazos acknowledges that he is not particularly adept at dealing with the media, and says he views reporters only as “a way to get our message out.”

“I have no other agenda. I didn’t come here to read about myself in the newspaper or see myself on television,” the Secretary said. “I would rather take that time to visit a school and talk to education leaders and talk to the people in the Congress and get some ideas from teachers and parents.”

Conservative columnists and publications have repeatedly attacked Mr. Cavazos since he arrived in Washington, according to two residents of the conservative camp, primarily because of his ideological pallor in comparison to Mr. Bennett.

“Bill Bennett was one of the few heroes in the Reagan Administration, and conservatives knew it would be hard to find someone who would make their hearts beat as fast,” said Mr. Bauer. “Then Bush picked somebody with no roots in the conservative movement.”

“For the first couple of months, he failed to address any specific issue,” added Jeanne Allen, education analyst for the Heritage Foundation. “He was lukewarm on choice at first.”

“Then, before talking with anyone else, he met with the National Education Asssociation,” Ms. Allen said. “While I’m not saying they shouldn’t be spoken to, he shouldn’t make them his leader on policy.”

Mr. Cavazos counters that he is trying to consult with groups of all stripes. “I’m here to serve the President and I’m doing that job, espousing his viewpoint,” the Secretary said. “When you examine it bit by bit, it really hasn’t shifted very much” from Mr. Reagan’s philosophy.

Mr. Cavazos says he is not bothered by criticism from the right any more than he is by being given a “D” by Time. “I am a bit baffled,” Mr. Cavazos insisted. “It would seem that people haven’t listened very carefully to what I’ve said.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 1989 edition of Education Week as Scrutinizing the Secretary:A Slow Starter or ‘On Target’?