Washington — Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addressed staff at the department headquarters Wednesday afternoon, seeking to change the tone following her contentious confirmation.
Devos, who is from the Grand Rapids area, pledged to challenge the status quo, while finding common ground to “put students’ needs first.”
“I firmly believe we can genuinely unite around a commitment to the rising generation,” DeVos said to an auditorium packed with U.S. Department of Education staffers. “Let’s make this deal: I will challenge all on how and why we’ve done things a certain way, but I will listen to each of you on your ideas for how we can do better for students. You are professionals whom I respect.”
The Senate narrowly confirmed DeVos’s nomination by a 51-50 vote Tuesday after Vice President Mike Pence cast the tie-breaking vote – the first time in history a vice president has had to help a cabinet nominee get confirmed.
DeVos, the billionaire businesswoman who twice chaired the Michigan Republican Party, has drawn the fire of teachers unions and the praise of school choice proponents for her advocacy of charter schools and taxpayer-funded vouchers for private education.
DeVos didn’t discuss policy but moved quickly to address recent headlines, which included coverage of the Senate hearing last month where she appeared ill-informed about some education issues, as well as protests by teachers unions and doubts about her qualifications.
“There’s no need to pull punches. For me personally, this confirmation process and the drama it engendered has been a bit of a bear,” DeVos said, a joking reference to her oft-mocked comment about the possible need for guns on a school campus to protect students from grizzly bears.
“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. For starters, please know, I’m an ‘open door’ type of person who listens more than speaks. I’m here to serve with you.”
As secretary, DeVos now oversees a staff of 4,400 and an operating budget of about $68 billion. She toured the department’s three buildings in Washington and met with supervisors Wednesday. Members of her transition team, including acting Secretary Phil Rosenfelt, joined her on stage, as well as husband Dick DeVos Jr.
Her plea was for unity. DeVos asked the staff to commit to “being more open and patient toward views different than our own,” acknowledging her outsider status as a “newbie”: “I have a lot to learn.”
“I hope to earn your trust and confidence as we work together,” she said.
Though DeVos pledged to work with those who opposed her nomination, some in that category, including teachers union leadership, have pledged to fight her agenda. Leaders of the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers on Tuesday indicated they would resist her reforms.
DeVos addressed her critics, as well as teachers, parents and others involved in education:
“Let us set aside any preconceived notions, and let’s recognize that while we may have disagreements, we can and must come together, find common ground and put the needs of our students first,” she said.
“When we do disagree, let us set an example by being sincere and honest, but passionate but civil, while never losing sight of our shared mission.”
She spoke of modeling diversity and inclusion for children. She said obstacles to student success are often human-made and too often “adult issues.”
“I’m reminded of the ancient counsel to act justly, to love kindness and to proceed humbly,” DeVos said, echoing a verse from the Book of Micah in the Hebrew Bible.
“No matter your outlook, I’m betting we can all agree that acting justly, being compassionate and moving forward humbly on behalf of the future of our nation – America’s students – is a good place to start.”
DeVos takes the helm as the department has less power than under past administrations because Congress in 2015 passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which takes full effect in the 2017-18 school year. The law limits the federal government’s involvement in school accountability and bars the secretary from interfering with state academic standards.
“In general, the education secretary has less influence over education than other cabinet secretaries have over their spheres of influence, both in terms of funding and operating responsibility, because education is still largely a state and local operation,” said Brian Jacob, professor of education policy and economics at the University of Michigan.
“Her influence will be felt in what she doesn’t do, as much as what she does do.”
For instance, the agency will be responsible for reviewing states’ plans for holding schools and districts accountable for students’ test scores. DeVos can summarily approve each plan or demand more credible standards, Jacob said.
She also has discretion in how aggressively the department’s Office of Civil Rights investigates allegations of discrimination or mishandling of sexual assault complaints on campuses, and how aggressively the agency pursues for-profit colleges with questionable records, he said.
About 15 anti-DeVos protesters with signs chanted outside the department headquarters: “Welcome to your first day! We will not go away!”
“We want to make sure Betsy DeVos knows that, just because she got confirmed, the fight is not over,” said Maggie Thompson, executive director of Generation Progress, the youth arm of the Center for American Progress, a liberal group.
Thompson said their concerns include the department’s responsibility to uphold the rights of student loan borrowers and DeVos’ position that it was premature to say whether she’ll enforce the department’s 2011 guidance for college campuses investigating allegations of sexual assault.