President Bush has breathed new life into the listless White House initiative to improve the education of Latinos. His appointment of a 17-member presidential commission on Latino education ignited both new hope for action and sharp criticism of the President's educational policies.
The commission appointments last month came a full year after Bush had signed an executive order on Latino education, which called for such an advisory commission.
The process of naming a commission had become "almost dormant," said Leticia Quezada, a Los Angeles school board member. "Perhaps this is an opportunity for a beginning." She and other Latino education advocates, however, assailed the delay in the appointments and the makeup of the commission.
Although the commission includes a Santa Ana businessman, there are no representatives from Los Angeles or New York City, the two largest Latino population centers in the country. None of the commissioners are of Central American or Puerto Rican descent, the nation's two biggest subgroups of Latinos after those of Mexican origin.
Quezada said the appointments, and the fact that Los Angeles was "overlooked so grossly," make her "question . . . how deep the commitment is to really address the problems of Latinos in education. It leaves me to conclude that (the White House initiative) will be more of a superficial effort--throwing public relations statements to the problems."
In Bush's three years as President, Quezada said, there is "no evidence of things he has accomplished to earn the title of 'Education President.' "
Janice Petrovich, director of the Latino education group Aspira, said she was hopeful, but she questioned whether the commission members are representative of the "diverse Hispanic community."
The "educational needs of a newly arrived immmigrant and a fifth-generation Hispanic can be very different," she said.
"What we want to see (from the White House initiative) is something that will develop concrete policies to attack the problems we all recognize," she said.
Raul Yzaguirre, whose National Council of La Raza worked for two years to get the executive order issued, said: "Obviously, we were concerned about the long time it took to get the executive order and having the commission appointed."
Yzaguirre, who was appointed to the educational commission, said he had been assured that additional appointments will be made.
Bush, in a Los Angeles interview with seven Latino journalists on Sept. 19, acknowledged that the appointments were "long overdue."
The President called the improvement of education for Latinos a vital national goal and voiced unhappiness that more progress has not been made to slow the Latino dropout rate. Four of every 10 Latinos in the nation who enter high school drop out without earning a diploma.
"We recognize the crisis in education and employment for young Hispanic-Americans," Bush said. "At a time when Hispanics are the fastest-growing and youngest minority in the United States, their wages and school completion rates are among the lowest."
Bush said the Latino initiative would fall within the scope of his "America 2000 Education Strategy," which he enunciated last April. It calls for national educational standards, national voluntary testing of students and parental choice of what school their children can attend.
Bush's policies, Quezada said, give her the impression "that the federal government does not have a major responsibility for the educational system in this country." Quezada said the 2000 plan does not help her as a school board member "tackle issues of budget cuts, layoff of counselors and librarians . . . the high school dropout rate, programs to enable students to read in English and Spanish."
Bush said educational problems cannot be solved alone by the federal government, and he emphasized his cooperation with the nation's governors in developing the 2000 plan. His Administration, he insisted, does not "want to throw money at problems with expensive programs that simply don't work."
The President also expressed support of bilingual education programs, "with the eventual goal of having every kid in the class understand English."
Education Department figures show that bilingual education funding under his Administration has grown by 6.4%, from $158.5 million in 1990 to $168.7 million in 1991. In contrast, the total Education Department budget has risen nearly 10%, from nearly $24.6 billion in 1990 to $27 billion in 1991.
In another appointment last month, a veteran Administration official, John Florez, was named executive director of an Education Department office to coordinate the Latino initiative. In an interview with Nuestro Tiempo, Florez said he hopes his office and the newly named commission "don't do any more studies. . . . We've been studied to death. It's not a matter of studying the problem but of holding agencies accountable."