Fiddling While Rome Burns: The Education Policy of Lauro Cavazos

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

—Edmund Burke

Ronald Reagan became president in 1981 threatening to eliminate the Department of Education, but by his second term his education secretary had become one of the administration’s most outspoken cabinet members. William Bennett was controversial and iconoclastic. He stepped on the toes of the teachers unions and education administrators, but he brought education to the forefront of the national agenda. Even many who disagreed with his views paid tribute to him as a leader who encouraged serious debate on education issues. By the time Bennett resigned from the post, education was a national campaign issue, and George Bush grabbed it. He pledged to become America’s “Education President.”

Once in office, the first thing George Bush did for education was re-appoint Lauro Cavazos to be his education secretary. (Reagan had appointed Cavazos to replace the retiring Bennett in the last months of the administration.) Most newly appointed cabinet members have to develop an agenda, but Cavazos was fortunate. He had a ready-made set of issues raised by Bennett that had received a great deal of attention. Educators and scholars were taking stands on many of the questions raised. Bennett had stimulated the nation’s imagination with a call for traditional solutions to modern problems in education. Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and. E.D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy had become national bestsellers by rousing a passionate debate on how to raise standards and arrest academic decline.

Among the Bennett proposals that Cavazos inherited:

Back to Basics: Teachers should adopt a back-to-basics curriculum in primary and secondary schools by focusing more attention on knowledge and skills in such fundamental areas as reading, writing, and mathematics. Bennett criticized many of the “open classroom” innovations of the 1960s and warned that teachers should be wary of sacrificing substance for form. In short, curricula should emphasize the essentials.

Moral Education: In the late 1960s and ’70s a technique to address morality called “values clarification” was popularized. The term refers to exercises in which teachers reject the notion of objective moral standards and instead encourage students to discover and practice their own “value system,” regardless of what it may be. Bennett said that schools should teach children the difference between right and wrong, a respect for properly constituted authority, and an understanding of responsibilities as well as rights. This, he said, can be achieved by emphasizing order in the classroom and by providing examples of good character in literature. Teachers and administrators, Bennett said, must serve as good role models by upholding the highest standards of ethical behavior.

Sex Education: Many sex education programs implicitly promote teenage sex by distributing contraceptive devices. Armed with data on escalating numbers of teenage pregnancies and abortions, Bennett argued that sex education classes should promote abstinence and sexual responsibility.

Core Curriculum: The debate over the need for a Western civilization core curriculum raged at Stanford University and elsewhere. The old curriculum was attacked as elitist and insensitive to women and minorities. There were calls to replace it with “progressive” courses that would “reflect cultural diversity.” Bennett defended the Western civilization core against those he said would trivialize and politicize the curriculum. When we study the writings of the West’s greatest thinkers, Bennett argued, we do not endorse any “party line.” Instead, we join in an ancient, self-critical dialogue, a “great debate on the perennial questions.”

Faced with such controversies, one might expect Cavazos to respond with his own education philosophy, his own contribution to the continuing academic and political debates. Amazingly, Cavazos has been virtually silent. On most issues, his position is to take no position. He is neither for Bennett nor against him. He has been mute on Stanford’s call for a model non-western curriculum. He has said nothing about textbooks that ignore the historical role of Judaism, Christianity, and other religions. He is untouched by Bloom or Hirsch. The secretary has remained sphinxlike in the face of the questions that will shape the future of American education.

To discern this change, compare excerpts from a statement on “educational partnerships” by Secretary Cavazos with former Secretary Bennett’s speech on the core curriculum. These excerpts reveal a very different clarity of mind.

Lauro Cavazos: “What I am getting at is we’ll cover the entire spectrum to educate every person to their fullest potential.

“Now, how are we going to go about doing this? Anybody can point out problems. What’s the solution?

“Well, perhaps we start, first of all, by raising awareness, exactly, I’ve talked about. America’s had a history of problem solving. Once we have become aware of the problems, for example of a certain disease, let’s say AIDS or polio or malaria or whatever, we bring a lot of resources, a lot of attention, a lot of work to solve that problem.

“Once we set a goal to put a person on the moon, all of our efforts went in that direction and we put a person on the moon. To go to the depths of the sea, we’ve managed to bring that into line as well, because we focused on that issue. And I do not believe today that America has focused on that issue. If they had, we could not possibly permit to have a society that loses people out of that system, and a society that does not have the best educational system in the world.

“And therefore, I say we raise their awareness, and perhaps we can focus those kinds of things. And unfortunately, it’s not going to be solved in my time, it’s not going to be solved in this decade. Maybe we’ll touch it by the turn of the century. So those are some of the issues.

“And the next thing we’re going to tell everyone to do, and you’re doing it right here, you’re here because you care. I say let us raise awareness, but let us care for every person to make sure that he or she is educated to their fullest potential” (statement at a press conference, November 18,1988).

William Bennett: “The point for contemporary higher education is this: The classics of Western philosophy and literature amount to a great debate on the perennial questions. To deprive students of this debate is to condemn them to improvise their ways of living in ignorance of their real options and the best arguments for each. In the tradition of Peter Abelard, our civilization offers a great sic et non on the human condition. Consider the point/counterpoint of Western thought. On the ends of government, whom do we follow Madison or Marx? On the merits of the religious life Aquinas or Voltaire? On the nobility of the warrior Homer or Erasmus? On the worth of reason Hegel or Kierkegaard? On the role of women Wollstonecraft or Schopenhauer? The study of Western civilization is not, then, a case for ideology; it is a case for philosophy and thoughtfulness. It considers not only the one hand, but the one hand and the other and, just as often, the third and fourth hands as well. Those who take the study of the West seriously end up living a variety of different lives and arriving at a diversity of opinions and positions. And for this diversity, in the West as nowhere else, there is unparalleled tolerance and encouragement” (speech at Stanford University, April 18,1988).

A New Agenda

Cavazos has replaced topics like cultural illiteracy, discipline, and moral education with minority issues. He has allowed himself to be cast as a professional Hispanic, and this role has shaped his agenda. His issues on the primary- and secondary-school levels are bilingual education, recruitment of minority teachers, and dropout rates, especially among Hispanics and other minorities. “I support bilingual education. I think it is an important component of what we do. I add to that, though, that every student should move into English as quickly as possible.” Similarly, his higher education agenda concentrates on increasing the graduation rates of minorities and boosting the number of doctorates awarded to women and minorities, especially in the “hard” sciences.

These causes (with the possible exception of bilingual education) are, of course, all worthy ones. But problems like high school dropout rates and the low number of doctorates awarded to minorities are only symptoms of the national disarray in education. Such tragic problems will not be alleviated until reforms are made in classrooms, curricula, and moral education. These reforms are not likely to occur with an offend-no-one approach.

During his presidential campaign Bush promised the Hispanic community to name a Latino to the cabinet, and Cavazos seems to have been selected largely because he had already been in place for some months. A father of ten children, he had been serving as the president of Texas Tech University when the Reagan administration nominated him to replace Bennett, who resigned in September 1988. The son of a fifth-generation Texan who was the foreman of the King Ranch in South Texas, Cavazos was educated in Anglo schools. He went on to earn a B.A. and an M.A. in zoology at Texas Tech and a Ph.D. in physiology from Iowa State University. He has served in various academic and administrative positions including a five-year stint as the dean of Tufts University Medical School. His record is, clearly, distinguished.

The secretary’s lack of experience in elementary and secondary education may be the reason he is hesitant to criticize the education establishment. His press officer, Lon Anderson, said that because Cavazos “doesn’t have the bridges burned with the NEA” he can sit down and talk with them. Bennett, on the other hand, believed that if there is something wrong with education in the United States, then there must be something wrong with the educators. Between 1960 and 1980 education spending more than doubled, while SAT scores and other measures of academic achievement plummeted. Bennett said that the education establishment—the unions and the administrators—had to take some of the blame for the decline and become more accountable for students’ performance. He also realized that the education establishment would put stumbling blocks in the path of reform—and he said so publicly.

Apparently, Cavazos would rather join the club. He prefers to gloss over differences with the NEA, rather than have an adversarial relationship. The first thing he did as education secretary was plan a meeting with leaders of 50 educational organizations to show them that he wanted to work with them. Bob Chase, vice president of the NEA, compliments Cavazos’ non-confrontational style, but asked about the secretary’s initiatives he said, “It’s hard to pinpoint what the agenda is. It’s been a year now, and there’s a real lack of definition.” Cavazos’ consensus-over-conflict approach may be kinder and gentler, but it will take more than that to deal with the substantive challenges facing elementary, high school, and college education in America today.

Fighting for Choice

There is one Reagan/Bennett theme that Cavazos hopes to make his own: choice. The term refers to plans which give parents greater leeway in deciding where to send their children to school. Minnesota enacted a choice plan that opened up school district lines to allow statewide enrollment. A similar plan was implemented for middle schools in East Harlem, New York. Choice, “magnet schools,” monetary awards to “merit schools,” and greater accountability for principals and teachers are all part of the Bush/Cavazos policy of introducing competition into the school systems. The philosophy behind the policy is that the ability to choose a good school for one’s child should not be limited to people who can afford either to pay for private schools or to move to good school districts. To his credit, Cavazos has spoken publicly and consistently in support of choice plans.

There are differences, however, between Cavazos’ notion of choice and Bennett’s. Cavazos, in speeches, calls choice the cornerstone of his education policy. He has sponsored five regional seminars promoting the concept. But his support ends there. He has not been ambitious in encouraging grass roots choice efforts. Jackie Ducote, a choice reform leader in Louisiana, said that she was “glad to see Cavazos sponsor the conferences,” but she added that Bennett had come down to Louisiana to speak to the legislature in support of choice reforms.

It is one thing to give recognition to efforts that have succeeded; it is something else personally to encourage local reform efforts in need of national recognition. Jeanne Allen, a Heritage Foundation education analyst who worked in the Education Department under Bennett, says that the Bush administration’s education policy has been “relativistic.” “Bennett said only three things would change schools: content, character, and choice. The Department now says, ‘There are so many good ideas.’ ” She would like to see the secretary adopt a less vague stance and attract media attention with speeches on behalf of local choice reform groups.

The other difference in the current administration’s choice policy is that Cavazos and Bush limit their support for choice to public schools. Many local reform groups want to allow parents the option of sending their children to private schools with the help of state money. Bennett urged Catholic schools to push for financial help from local governments, and suggested ways to do it.

But similar choice plans have received no support from the secretary or President Bush. During his presidential campaign Bush supported private education tax credits for poor families. Once elected, he changed his mind. Gary Bauer, former undersecretary under Bennett, said this shift was an “attempt to buy off the public school establishment opposition [to choice] by eliminating Catholic schools and other private schools from the mix.” Bauer added, “I think that what the department has done is say ‘We’ll never get choice that includes private schools, so we’ll try choice for public schools only.’ But the public school people will still be against it, and the private school people say, `Why should we fight for it?'”

Any policy that would give government support to private schools may be politically unachievable at the moment, but the Bush/Cavazos education policy removes tax credits and state-level vouchers as subjects of debate and thereby forfeits many private school parents’ support on choice reforms.

The Feeble Communicator

During his first year in office Cavazos seemed to disappear from the public eye. Now the press has begun to criticize him for his inability to grab headlines, and in general for not having the skill Bennett had with the media. “I find that he seems to be missing the opportunity to use the Washington press to the advantage of education. It is not an art that is easy to master, but it is certainly not his strong suit. Bennett would charm you or chew you up and spit you out, but it was always a good interview,” said Time magazine education editor Jerome Cramer. Indeed, Cavazos appears to be uncomfortable in the public spotlight. Press officer Lon Anderson describes him as preferring to be a behind-closed-doors leader.

Many of the media’s criticisms miss the point. The magnetism Bennett displayed was a result of what he said as much as how he said it. Indeed, any secretary of education does have very limited power, since the national government has little authority in the area and supplies less than ten percent of the money spent on education. The secretary can, however, use his office as a bully pulpit to challenge bad ideas that have become entrenched in education and to bring media attention to successes and failures made on the state and local levels. In this capacity, it is important to be a “great communicator.”

The difference, then, between Cavazos and Bennett is more than stylistic. Cavazos’ own agenda lacks substance; he is ignoring the crucial debates still raging in academe. Issues like moral education, the core curriculum, and discipline are waiting to be picked up again. Choice needs to be promoted by means other than mere exhortation. There is a leadership void in the education secretary’s seat. No one is asking Lauro Cavazos to become Bill Bennett, but he has got to address the “Bennett issues.” Few think he is up to it. As education writer Denis Doyle said bluntly, Cavazos is a “lovely, self-effacing man, who is woefully miscast for the job.” The Education President needs a new education secretary.


  • Hilary Ryan

    At the time this article was written, Hilary Ryan was an editorial assistant at Crisis.

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