Lauro F. Cavazos, the first Latino member of the President’s Cabinet, resigned Wednesday as secretary of education one day after a closed-door meeting with White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu and amid criticism that his department had not measured up.
The department’s “performance was short of where we wanted it to be,” one senior White House official said, adding that it was unclear whether Cavazos “had been pushed” to resign during his Tuesday meeting with Sununu.
Leading candidates to replace him were two defeated Republican Senate candidates, Rep. Lynn Martin of Illinois and Rep. Tom Tauke of Iowa, although several others were under consideration, including Deputy Education Secretary Ted Sanders, Administration officials and others said.
Cavazos, appointed by President Ronald Reagan and reappointed by President Bush, is leaving his post Friday, and Sanders will serve as acting head. The resignation was announced at a Cabinet meeting, which Cavazos did not attend. He is not expected to return for the personal departure appearance with Bush that the President has made with other top officials leaving the Administration.
In a letter accepting the resignation, Bush told Cavazos that the secretary’s work “has set us on a path to educational excellence through the end of the decade.”
But Cavazos’ tenure received mixed reviews from other members of the Administration and education experts, reflecting criticism that had dogged him throughout most of his 2 1/2 years as the nation’s senior educator.
The 63-year-old Cavazos, whose first formal education was in a one-room schoolhouse and who eventually became president of Texas Tech University, did not say in his resignation letter to Bush what he would do.
Cavazos during his tenure was best known for promoting the idea of allowing parents to choose where to send their children to school. He also advocated bilingual education.
In his letter to Bush, Cavazos said he was proud of the contributions he made in “expanding choice in education, promoting the executive order on excellence in education for Hispanic Americans, and raising awareness of the growing diversity of America’s student population.”
Cavazos’ leadership of the department caused little controversy, but he drew low marks as a leader in the education field.
“He didn’t do much. In fact, he didn’t do anything,” said Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, one of the two major organizations representing teachers. The other is the National Education Assn.
But that harsh view was countered by Robert H. Atwell, president of the American Council on Education, who praised him as “a distinguished scholar and an experienced academic administrator” whose commitment to education was greater than that of the White House he served.
As secretary of education under a chief executive who pledged during the 1988 presidential campaign to be the “education President,” Cavazos found himself in a particularly difficult position.
Bush’s focus on education issues during the campaign--or at least his frequent mention of education as a focus of his concern--guaranteed that his Department of Education would come under scrutiny and that its performance would be weighed against the promises of the campaign.
Complicating Cavazos’ performance was the federal budget crunch and the fact that he followed a dynamic education secretary, William J. Bennett, who never shied from public endorsement of controversial positions.
The federal government’s role in financing education is relatively small, contrasted with that of states and individual communities. Its policy role is similarly limited. Thus, if the department “is to make a difference, it has to have a secretary playing a leadership role, and that wasn’t Cavazos’ strength,” said one education expert who has worked closely with Cavazos and did not want to be quoted by name.
“My guess is, he may have gotten a little tired of the pounding he took. He did take a pounding,” said the former White House official, who has remained close to Bush. “He suffered because he followed a guy who was a very forceful personality. He was much more reserved.”
“He seemed to always be the whipping boy of the Cabinet, getting the lowest marks and taking criticism as being the least effective, which wasn’t fair,” the former Bush aide said.
Cavazos’ resignation leaves Bush with two Cabinet posts to fill. Labor Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole announced her resignation Oct. 24 to become president of the American Red Cross. Other shifts are rumored as Bush approaches the midpoint of his term, one senior White House official reported.
By early next year, the official said, Agriculture Secretary Clayton K. Yeutter will “probably have had enough.” And, he said, “people are bailing out at” the Commerce Department “as if something is happening.” However, there have been no substantial indications that Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher, a Texan and a longtime friend of the President, is about to leave his post.
The resignation leaves one other Latino--Interior Secretary Manuel Lujan Jr.--in the Cabinet.
“From what I hear, Lujan wants to stay and the President is happy with the job he is doing,” one former White House official said.
Martin was said to be interested in the education post--she had also been mentioned as a possible candidate for the job of labor secretary. She and Tauke, who has been a member of the House Education and Labor Committee, are both longtime supporters of Bush and are looking for jobs after giving up their House seats to run for the Senate.
Others mentioned as possible successors include Lynne Cheney, chairwoman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and wife of Defense Secretary Dick Cheney; former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean and Rep. Patricia Saiki (R-Hawaii), who ran unsuccessfully for the Senate.