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Wake-up call on US education. New Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos speaks out on issues

WHEN cattle ranch foreman Lauro Cavazos Sr. moved his family into Kingsville, Texas, in 1935 - to within three blocks of the grade school, the high school, and Texas A&I College, - he began to bang on the doors of the all-Anglo school system. He banged loudly enough so that his children got in - the first Hispanics to do so - long before civil rights laws hit the South. Today, one of them, Lauro Cavazos Jr., is the newest United States secretary of education, and the first Hispanic to be a US presidential Cabinet member. Dr. Cavazos' appointment is admittedly short - he was sworn in Sept. 20 and the term ends Jan. 20 (though rumors persist he may stay on).

``You might wonder why I would take this job with only a few months left,'' Cavazos extemporized in an interview from his new and cavernous bare-walled Washington office.

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``It's very simple. These months give me an opportunity to say some things I've been saying in Texas for years: that America must awaken itself to the serious problems it faces due to the deficit in education of some of its citizens. Education is our most serious deficit.''

Perhaps so, but the appointment itself is seen as more political than educational: Cavazos, who was already preparing to step down as president of Texas Tech, was chosen to replace the controversial William J. Bennett from a list that included only Latinos. For the next few weeks, he will be touring the Southwest, presumably to attract the Latino vote there.

In defense of his selection, Cavazos points to the fact that in 1980 a Reagan transition team approached him three times about the education post. Having just accepted the Texas Tech presidency, he declined.

He plans to soften the tone of a department that reached new heights of contentiousness under Secretary Bennett, and will make the needs and problems of minorities, especially minority families, his main issue.

Hispanics have lost education as a prime value, he says. The 45 percent Latino dropout rate is not due solely to the education system, but to the Latino family as well: ``We no longer see the value of education ... we've lost sight of it. We have the fastest-growing population in America and we're getting further and further behind.''

The powerful work ethic, value of independence, and high expectations in his family, despite depression-era poverty on a ranch, will inform his approach. One of his two brothers became the first four-star US Hispanic general. The other was an all-American football player who now owns a ranch.

Cavazos himself was talked out of a career as a commercial fisherman by his father, who wanted him to go to college. He has a PhD in physiology from Iowa State and was dean of the Tufts Medical School before going to Texas Tech.

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The number of minorities at Texas Tech rose from 5.7 percent to 8.4 percent under his leadership. Even that, he says, ``is a failure'' - though he visited high schools and elementary schools and gave junior high commencement speeches.

Unlike Dr. Bennett, Cavazos plans to ``reach out and work with'' education groups in Washington. He says he will not use his federal office to attack.

He doesn't, for example, share Bennett's view that colleges are wasteful, ``overfunded and underaccountable.''

``There is such a tremendous diversity in higher education in America that to make broad, general characterizations like that just is not my cup of tea.'' He buys the ``catch up'' theory to explain higher college costs - that flat salaries and neglected buildings in the '70s meant that higher tuitions in the '80s were needed to catch up.

Surprisingly, Cavazos says he has not read Allan Bloom's ``The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students'' - the most discussed, reviewed, and purchased (800,000 copies) book about education in decades.

A strong advocate of bilingual education, Cavazos wants a quicker transition among Hispanic children to English proficiency. But he's impatient with too stern an ``English only'' focus: ``You have to always keep in mind that you are dealing with a child - a little six-year-old. They are frightened, they're not too sure where they are. It's bad enough if you understand English. We have to put ourselves in the place of a child who must all of a sudden make the most serious separation that he or she has faced.''

Cavazos will oversee the 1989-90 education budget and will seek more federal funds.

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