In her first speech as head of the federal education department, Betsy DeVos tried to distance herself from the Betsy DeVos who ignited national backlash.
She told staffers that she valued their experience and ideas. She said students with disabilities and their families deserve the department’s full support, and that diversity and inclusion were important values. And she used language about “bending the arc” and “breaking the cycle” that echoed those who have tied education closely to social-justice work.
DeVos also poked fun at the answer she gave about guns in schools during her confirmation hearing that inspired many a grizzly-bear meme. “For me personally, this confirmation process, and the drama it engendered, has been a bit of a bear,” DeVos said, to some laughter.
The remarks indicate that DeVos — a billionaire philanthropist who made a name for herself as a school-choice advocate in Michigan — has paid attention to the criticisms lobbed her way over the last two months. She seemed eager to seem more moderate than she was portrayed earlier this week, when Senate Democrats staged a 24-hour talkathon opposing her nomination. They pointed to her bungled answers about federal law protecting students with disabilities and about measuring student performance as evidence that DeVos’s lack of experience would be dangerous for America’s students.
That fight ended with a historic tie-breaking vote from the vice president, who swore her in later on Tuesday.
“For many, the events of the last few weeks have likely raised more questions and spawned more confusion than they have brought light and clarity,” DeVos said. “So for starters, please know: I’m a door-open type of person, who listens before she speaks. I’m here to serve with you.”
Also notable was what went unsaid. DeVos didn’t mention the causes that have been the focus of her education advocacy: school choice, school vouchers, or charter schools.
She did promise to “challenge all on how and why we’ve done things a certain way.” But she indicated that she knew the job ahead would require others’ expertise.
“From students who may be struggling, to hard-working teachers who feel stifled, special-needs students and families to whom we owe our full support, and leaders and administrators seeking clarity and evidence-based solutions — the department has a complex population to champion,” she said. “Even though I’m a grandmother, since this is my first day, I know I’m the newbie and I have a lot to learn.”
How long she wants to remain on that common ground is unclear. In the coming weeks, she’ll need to make important decisions about staffing and about the agency’s top priorities — decisions that will shed light on her agenda, how quickly she’s planning to pursue it, and how divisive it will be.