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Bush Initiative on Education Loses Its Steam


WASHINGTON — Last September, Janice Petrovich, the director of a national Latino education advocacy group, hurried to the White House Rose Garden for the launching of Hispanic Heritage month.

Instead of the ceremonial observance she expected, she was surprised when President Bush signed an executive order to improve educational opportunities for Latinos. "It seemed like a coup to get that executive order," Petrovich, executive director of Aspira Assn., said recently.

But much of the initial enthusiasm has waned and there is growing frustration over the Administration's slow pace in implementing the Sept. 24 order, which was the result of a two-year lobbying effort by a dozen Latino advocacy groups. "Right now it's a token document," Petrovich said. "A lot of months have passed and nothing is happening."

The order calls for a presidential advisory commission and a special office at the Department of Education called the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic-Americans to help develop plans and monitor Latinos' participation in federal education programs. Special attention is to be paid to students who are not proficient in English, to promoting early childhood education and to parental involvement.

Six weeks after Bush signed the order, Education Secretary Lauro Cavazos resigned under pressure.

Cavazos, the first Latino to hold a Cabinet-level position, is credited by some observers with making the final push to get the executive order signed, although some Latino advocates charge that he was not supportive when they approached him with the idea shortly after he was appointed.

Since Cavazos' resignation, the initiative has languished in a state of bureaucratic limbo, according to education department officials.

Commission members have not been appointed, and Richard Marquez, a Cavazos appointee who had been acting director of the initiative at the education department, has resigned. A replacement has not been named.

No one knows how much emphasis the new education secretary, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, will give the Latino initiative.

"The appointment of the advisory commission is extremely important to the President and to me," Alexander said. The White House has been gathering nominations and "will appoint this commission very soon," Alexander said in late April. But no appointments had been made as this edition of Nuestro Tiempo went to press.

"It's pretty clear nothing is happening now," Leticia Quezada, a Los Angeles school board member, said recently. At a time when school districts are being hard hit by budget cutbacks, Quezada said she hoped that a national commission would come up with recommendations to give "a sense of urgency" to the issue of Latino education.

Latino educators and advocates are worried that the initiative will take a back seat to Alexander's reform plan, which was revealed in April and calls for national education standards, voluntary nationwide testing, creation of 535 experimental schools, and an emphasis on giving parents a choice of where to send their children to school.

"If the new secretary operates solely from his frame of reference, which is in a white-black context and shows no sensitivity to Hispanic issues, then he'll ignore the Hispanic initiative and focus on things that won't affect our community," said Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, the advocacy group that spearheaded the campaign on behalf of the order.

Alexander's reform package made no mention of the executive order, and he has not spoken publicly about improving education achievement among Latinos.

An encouraging sign, some say, is that he asked two high-ranking Latinos appointed under Cavazos--Rita Esquivel, director of the Office of Bilingual Education and Minority Language Affairs, and Robert Davila, assistant secretary for special education and rehabilitative services--to remain at the department.

His lone public comment on Latino education occurred during his Senate confirmation hearing in February, when Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) asked Alexander what he proposes to do about the 43% dropout rate among Latinos. "I cannot tell you I have a prescription for that," Alexander said. "I will look forward to developing one."

But some educators and Latino advocates fear that certain aspects of his reform package, such as national testing, may hurt Latinos and other minority students. Latino students generally do not perform as well as Anglos on standardized achievement tests, in part because many have low socioeconomic backgrounds and may not be proficient in English.

Yzaguirre said Latino students will be "doubly penalized" if minority schools lose federal funding because their students don't perform well on the national exams. Another concern is that the concept of choosing schools will drain resources from schools with a high number of minorities as Anglos leave to attend "better schools."

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