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Cavazos Reaffirms Stand in Criticism of Latino Parents

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

U.S. Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos, under fire for remarks he made last spring about Latino parents’ attitudes toward education, stuck to his guns Monday as he prepared to open the last of a series of hearings on Latino education.

“When there is a failure, we are all responsible, every citizen in this country. . . . That applies to parents as well as teachers, the business community (and others),” Cavazos told a Los Angeles news conference at Huntington Park High School.

Cavazos, a former teacher and college administrator from Texas and the first Mexican-American to head a Cabinet-level post, angered Latino leaders last April in San Antonio during the first hearing of the President’s Task Force on Hispanic Education. Citing a 40% high school dropout rate among Latino students nationally, Cavazos said that while Latino cultures traditionally have considered education important, “somewhere along the line we’ve lost that . . . we really have not cared that youngsters have dropped out of school.”

In opening the hearings on what President Bush has called a “crisis in Hispanic education,” Cavazos urged “a commitment from Hispanics, from Hispanic parents especially, that their children will be educated.” His remarks brought dismayed outcries from Latino leaders, who said Cavazos had wrongly blamed parents instead of the shortage of school funds, bilingual teachers and special programs to help offset the effects of poverty that dogs many Spanish-speaking immigrants.

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“I can understand people’s reacting to it,” Cavazos said Monday, “but I think they just misunderstood what I’ve been getting at. . . . I’ve been saying that for years.”

Cavazos also reiterated another controversial stance--that the schools’ problems can be solved without increasing their budgets.

“I don’t think that money is the fundamental issue here, frankly,” said Cavazos, pointing out that despite increased spending on education in the last decade, student performance, as measured by standardized test scores, remains flat.

Education leaders have repeatedly criticized the Bush Administration for claiming to make education a high priority while supporting increased funding only for Head Start--a noted preschool program for the poor--and for bilingual education. They also have said the Administration has ignored the signs of progress in such states as California, where test scores have risen somewhat and where more students are completing tougher curriculums.

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More than 100 speakers have signed up to testify at a hearing today at the Los Angeles County Office of Education headquarters in Downey. Cavazos will open the daylong session but will leave shortly after it begins to meet privately with a small group of area principals before leaving for San Diego, his spokeswoman said.

Cavazos, who has also led task force hearings in Miami, Boston and Chicago, arrived in Los Angeles on Sunday and met privately with about 20 parents selected by his office.

Arrangements for the visit surprised and angered at least some officials of the huge Los Angeles Unified School District.

Leticia Quezada, the only Latina on the school board that governs a district that is 62% Latino, said her offers of help and requests to be a part of the three-day visit were ignored.

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“I think it is quite preposterous, and it terribly undermines the value of the mission that President Bush sent him on,” said Quezada, who represents the nation’s second-largest school district.

Quezada, who sent Cavazos a harshly worded letter after his San Antonio comments, said she plans to testify today that Latino children are often the victims of a public school system unable or unwilling to meet their special needs. Her list includes new schools to relieve the badly overcrowded conditions that force some students to spend hours traveling by bus to the only campuses that have room for them, more bilingual teachers, more counselors and better ways to involve parents.

“I want to make it clear that it is the schools that are failing the children, not that the children are failing school,” Quezada said.

Lon Anderson, who organized the five-city meetings for Cavazos, said he did not intend to snub leaders of the Los Angeles district. He said he worked with “our local contacts” to put together sessions that “would include as broad a cross-section as possible” of parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders from the many school districts in the area.

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Anderson said much of Cavazos’ stay was devoted to small groups in closed meetings to maximize efficiency and candor.

On Monday, he held closed sessions with students and teachers and visited two classrooms at Huntington Park High, which operates year-round to accommodate its 3,600 students, who are virtually all Latinos, and sends more than 500 others to less crowded campuses.

In a science class of ninth- and 10th- graders, where students were dissecting cow eyes, Cavazos donned his former role, animatedly asking students to name the ocular nerves and muscles. He scrawled their answers on the chalkboard.

“See, that was easy, wasn’t it?” he beamed as he surrendered the chalk and rushed off.

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