Education secretary is flunking the job F

October 14, 1990|By Thomas Tochand Kenneth T. Walsh | Thomas Tochand Kenneth T. Walsh,Thomas Toch covers education for U.S. News & World Report. Kenneth T. Walsh is White House correspondent at U.S. News.

George Bush may have pledged to be the "education president," but his appointment of Lauro F. Cavazos as secretary of education has been a disaster.

The grandfatherly 63-year-old Texan has been virtually invisible in the struggle to improve the nation's schools, and the Department of Education has drifted aimlessly on his watch.

The former anatomy professor and president of Texas Tech University was initially appointed by President Ronald Reagan in August 1988, largely in the hope that his Hispanic heritage and Texas roots would buttress the Bush campaign in the state. From the beginning, he has supplied more platitudes than leadership on education.

At a news conference earlier this year, he called for the "restructuring" of the nation's schools. What is restructuring? Said Mr. Cavazos: "Those strategies that you have to bring about in the operation of schools in order to improve the schools." He shuns the media coverage that could help him communicate the administration's education message, saying in a recent interview, "I'm not looking for press."

Mr. Cavazos calls himself a coalition-builder. But he has been far less successful in raising the public debate on education than his abrasive but ideas-oriented predecessor, William J. Bennett, now the director of national drug control policy. A master of the "bully pulpit," Mr. Bennett also wrote a series of provocative reports on topics such as elementary schools and curriculum during his tenure. Mr. Cavazos is friendlier with the educational establishment than his predecessor, but he has lacked the drive and political savvy to move beyond fence-mending meetings.

"He can't get anyone to do anything," said an administration source who knows Mr. Cavazos' work. "He lectures; then there's no follow-up."

A lifelong academic, Mr. Cavazos is far out of his element in the rough-and-tumble world of public policy. He has gone a long way toward alienating his core constituency: Hispanics. In March, Hispanic lawmakers who represent severely impoverished Hispanic school districts in Texas' Rio Grande Valley walked out of Mr. Cavazos' address to a joint session of the Texas Legislature after he declared that "money is clearly not the answer" to "the education deficit."

His management of the Department of Education has been troubled at best. Staff members at the department's headquarters describe the low-keyed secretary as "detached" and "not fully engaged."

"Decision memos frequently sit in his office for weeks, some never to be resolved," said one official.

In sharp contrast to the hard-charging Mr. Bennett, Mr. Cavazos has no clear blueprint for the Education Department to push the president's policy proposals, which include alternative teacher certification and rewards for top teachers and schools. "He never takes a strong enough role to get initiatives off the ground," said a department official.

As an example, a departmental math and science initiative has been stalled for months in the absence of leadership by Mr. Cavazos. Said Jeannie Allen, an education specialist at the generally pro-Republican Heritage Foundation: "There are some talented staff at the department, but they aren't getting any marching orders."

To the dismay of many at the department, one of the most prominent members of the secretary's "staff" is his wife of 35 years, Peggy Ann Cavazos. She arrives daily at the department with her husband. Though not on the government payroll, the former nurse and mother of 10 has a "working office" adjacent to the secretary's and is actively involved in the department's affairs.

She reads and edits the speeches, policy papers and other information sent by department staff to the secretary. She regularly participates in senior staff meetings in the secretary's office, including a recent session on the department's controversial rankings of state educational performance. On more than one occasion, Mrs. Cavazos has persuaded her husband to reject recommendations from the department's top presidential appointees on highly technical matters of policy.

The secretary's staff frequently defers to Mrs. Cavazos over the secretary's schedule.

"Ultimately, things that have to get done get done," said one source, "but frequently there are elaborate machinations to get from point A to point B" caused by Mrs. Cavazos.

Mr. Cavazos' detached demeanor and his wife's high profile in the department have left many Education Department staff members deeply frustrated. The situation nearly caused Undersecretary of Education Theodore Saunders to resign this spring, and his relationship with his boss remains "strained," according to department officials.

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