LAREDO, TEX., AUG. 17 -- Education Secretary Lauro F. Cavazos told educators from this Texas-Mexico border area today that students who do not speak English are not ready to learn, and he drew swift criticism.

Cavazos, speaking to about 1,500 Laredo principals and teachers, urged them to get parents more involved in education and to make sure students have a command of English.

"Parental involvement and language competency are basic," Cavazos said. "If that child cannot speak English the first day of school, that child is not ready to learn."

In a panel discussion afterward, South Texas superintendents took issue with Cavazos's statement about language.

"The comment that we heard this morning that students who are not speaking English are not ready to learn is a disabling comment," Robert Zamora, superintendent of the La Joya school district, said to rousing applause. Zamora said students are capable of learning in other languages.

Cavazos, a native of South Texas and former president of Texas Tech University, said he supports bilingual education but believes its goal should be to move the students into speaking English.

Young people cannot take full advantage of opportunities in the United States without speaking English, he said.

Cavazos said the Bush administration favors giving educators more freedom because that helps ensure parental involvement and language competency.

Throughout his speech, Cavazos emphasized that his remarks referred to national education, not specifically to Laredo or Texas.

That said, Cavazos again stated his position that spending more money is not the answer to education problems. He said how money is spent is a more important matter.

Earlier this year, Cavazos came under fire from some state lawmakers when he made that statement in a speech to the Texas Legislature, which was grappling with school finance reform.

Cavazos mentioned the Texas finance dilemma today. "Here in Texas, much of the attention has been on school finance, and there have been some inequities," he said.

Cavazos's remarks came on the day he was to sign, in Nuevo Laredo, a first-ever binational education agreement with Mexico.