Betsy Devos takes the oath of office Wednesday, Feb. 8, before addressing an all-employee meeting at the Education Department. Ingrid Jacques, The Detroit News
Washington — Betsy DeVos sometimes found it hard to keep her composure during her grueling confirmation process as the nation’s new education secretary. The ferocious and largely personal attacks on her character and commitment to promoting school choice were withering.
“I try not to be cynical,” DeVos says, during an exclusive interview in her new Washington office Wednesday, her first with the media since being nominated by President Donald Trump on Nov. 23. “I am disappointed with how some people have behaved, yes. But I still remain very hopeful that if people can unite around doing what’s right for kids we can ultimately find common ground.”
That’s a lot to hope for, given how intense the resistance was to her nomination. Democrats spent 24 hours on the Senate floor before the confirmation vote tearing apart her credentials and career. Teachers and their allies flooded the Capitol with letters of opposition. She was mocked in a “Saturday Night Live” skit.
And it took an unprecedented tie-breaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence to put her over the top.
Did it make DeVos angry?
“Yes, at times it certainly did,” she says. “It was frustrating. I was really discouraged, but I was told not to engage with the media. It was so one-sided and discouraging in that regard.”
Now that it’s over, DeVos sees a big part of her mission as convincing those she’ll be working with in the education establishment that she’s not out to destroy America’s public schools, but to make them better for all children.
DeVos spent her first day as the country’s education chief trying to build common ground with her staff — all 3,000 of them working among three buildings in the capital. She walked 25 floors (in heels), shaking hands and introducing herself — something staffers hadn’t seen before from her predecessors; many of them had never personally met an education secretary.
Part of the opposition to DeVos stemmed from her performance during her hearings. She was roundly ridiculed for answering a question about guns in schools by saying some western districts may need firearms in the building to protect against grizzly bears. She says the remark was in direct reference to a previous comment made by a senator on the committee.
She also waffled on a couple answers relating to measures of academic growth and the federal disability law.
DeVos acknowledges she didn’t do as well as she’d hoped.
“There were a few things I could have answered better or more articulately,” she says. “In my defense, the questioners had no interest in really hearing a full response, I don’t think. I did not want to be combative. I wanted to continue to be respectful and to try to reflect the kind of demeanor that I think we should have surrounding these conversations.
“It was frustrating, but generally speaking, I think I acquitted myself very well.”
And she disputes claims that she was ill-prepared to face the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, saying she was prepped extensively by the Trump transition team.
“We had three official ‘murder boards’ — it was a fitting term — where they simulated the hearing room and had different individuals playing different senators. It gave me a good understanding of what it was going to feel like.”
DeVos says she’s bothered most by accusations that she doesn’t support traditional public schools and doesn’t really care about the students in them.
“Nothing could be further from the truth. All the work I’ve done has been to help kids for whom the schools they’re assigned don’t work, but with the hope that the schools that they would leave actually have an opportunity to get better as well and should challenge themselves to be better.
“That and the allegation that I’m ethically conflicted — that I have conflicts that I’m not taking care of. That’s is very bothersome to me.”
Despite the harsh criticism of her advocacy for charters schools and private school vouchers, DeVos is not backing down from those positions.
“I again believe that there is a quiet but growing army that really wants and demands something different and better for their kids and their neighbors and communities,” she says. “To the extent that I can help be a catalyst for that conversation and for activity and movement in a positive direction around that, I will certainly do that.”
Michigan’s charter school movement, which DeVos helped pioneer, came under particular fire during the process. She says the state’s record was hugely misrepresented.
“The accountability measures that charters are operating under are much more stringent in Michigan than many other states,” she says. “People get the mistaken notion that because there are multiple authorizers it results in lower quality. I would argue the opposite, especially if you have transparency.”
But she’s ready and willing to move on from the bitterness of the confirmation, even if her opponents aren’t prepared yet do the same.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association — the country’s largest teacher union — says she’s built a Rolodex with the sole purpose of fighting Trump’s education agenda. In fact, she said this week there, “will be no relationship with Betsy DeVos.”
“I anticipated there would be opposition because of what I’ve been working for in the K-12 area, but I don’t think anyone could have anticipated quite the level of opposition and acrimony surrounding this,” DeVos says. “It made me more resolute.
“I know where my heart and mind are lines up around what’s right for kids and their opportunity and future.”
She has a to-do list ready to go, including two primary areas to engage with right away. DeVos wants to help states and local school chiefs with the implementation of the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act. There are also several higher education pieces she wants to address, such as reauthorization of the higher education act and reducing onerous regulations on universities.
To get any legislation through Congress, however, DeVos will need to court some of those hostile Democrats in the Senate. She’s ready to make inroads there as well.
“I’m very optimistic that I will be able to strike up a relationship with a number of members of the Senate who on paper are more closely aligned with giving parents more choices than much of the rhetoric we’ve heard to date.”
That hits at the heart of what DeVos wants to accomplish in this job, one she never sought nor thought she’d do until approached late last year.
When she considers what her legacy may be at the end of her service, she frames it this way:
“I would hope by the time I leave to have allowed students across this country, particularly those who are today struggling most, to find and go to a school where they are going to thrive in and grow and become everything they hope to be.”