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In resigning his post as education secretary, Lauro Cavazos is leaving behind a public school system he acknowledges is in deep trouble.

"We must do better or perish as the nation we know today," Cavazos said last year when another dismal report on public education cited high dropout rates, low test scores and general mediocrity.

He re-emphasized that warning as schools opened this fall: "The academic performance of American students lags far behind that of students from our major economic competitors in Western Europe and the Far East."

But his tenure was marked by clashes with education groups and teachers' unions, whom the Bush administration has called too resistant to change and who have in turn accused Cavazos of lackluster performance.

In September, the National Assessment of Educational Progress put much of the blame on a U.S. school system entrenched in outmoded teaching methods and on unconcerned parents and students.

It said up to half of elementary, middle school and high school students could not grasp challenging subject matter in mathematics, science, reading, geography and history. "Even fewer appear to be able to use their minds well," the report said.

More than one-fourth of U.S. high school students drop out before completing their studies, most of them minorities led by Hispanics. College-entrance test scores continue to fall.

But parents and education experts refuse to accept all the blame. They complain of inadequate federal spending on schools and a leadership void from the White House down.

A CBS News poll found 72 percent of Americans polled last spring said George Bush was all talk and no action on his campaign promise to become "the education president."

Education professionals critical of the administration say problems identified in 1980 persist because of reduced education funding in that decade -- primarily in the eight years of President Ronald Reagan, who promised to abolish the Education Department but found he could not deliver on that.

Some educators also say Cavazos failed to push hard enough on education issues after his appointment by Reagan in 1988. His job was to set national education policy; oversee laws on racial balance and education of the handicapped, and to fund research.

Unlike school systems in most industrialized countries, those in the United States are run by local communities and not the national government. It supplies only six cents of every education dollar.

Most education money comes from state taxes and local property taxes, giving the advantage to wealthy areas.

Despite the casting of blame, educators, communities and federal officials all say they are as worried now about American children as they were in the late 1950s and early 1960s when the Soviet Union had taken a big lead in space exploration and stirred major questions about the quality of U.S. education.

"Now the issue is economic, so I think we are seeing the same bellringing urgency," Assistant Secretary of Education John McDonald said in an interview before Cavazos' resignation.

"The kids who are not doing what they should be doing are going to be our primary work force for the future."

Business leaders are worried. "Many companies are concerned that they will not be able to find employees who can even read or do simple arithmetic," the National Alliance of Business said in a report this year.

U.S. companies spend $219 billion to train and upgrade their workers -- more than the $195 billion annual spending for public elementary and secondary education.

Cavazos' resignation came at a time when the education community was swirling with ideas for radical change, such as leaving students free to attend any school they want unrestricted by the traditional assignment to a district.

Both the White House and some liberal groups support that idea, but it is opposed by teachers' unions and some minority groups who feel it could lead to resegregation of schools.

Many educators are also upset by a White House-backed proposal to ease rules on certification of teachers to enable other professionals to shift into teaching their specialties.

"We know what to do in terms of making them (schools) more effective," McDonald said. "The problem is getting communities to recognize the schools need to change."

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