Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Wednesday delivered her first public message since her rocky confirmation hearing, promising her new staff that she is committed to working with it to “protect, strengthen and create new world-class education opportunities for America’s students.”
DeVos pledged in a nine-minute speech to challenge the Education Department to examine its policies and practices — and to listen to her new colleagues. “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.”
DeVos addressed more than 200 employees at the headquarters in Washington, with others tuning in online for what was billed as an all-hands meeting. She enters office as a polarizing figure, with supporters calling her a change agent and critics charging that she is unqualified and would undermine public schools. She was confirmed Tuesday by the narrowest of margins, with Vice President Pence casting a tiebreaking vote after senators deadlocked on her fitness for the job.
She became fodder for late-night comics — including on “Saturday Night Live” — after suggesting that she opposed a ban on guns in schools because of “potential grizzlies.”
On Wednesday, she joked about the confirmation battle, saying it had been a “bit of a bear.”
“In all seriousness,” she continued, “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. So, for starters, please know, I’m a ‘door open’ type of person who listens more than speaks.”
She also gently urged employees to keep an open mind about her. “All of us here can help bring unity by personally committing to being more open to, and patient toward, views different than our own,” she said.
DeVos’s confirmation hearing raised questions about her commitment to enforce civil rights and disabilities laws meant to ensure that the nation’s children have access to public education. On Wednesday, she won applause from employees when she acknowledged the department’s “unique role in protecting students.”
“We believe students deserve learning environments that foster innovation and curiosity, and are also free from harm,” she said. “I’m committed to working with you to make this the case.”
So far there have been no major policy changes at the department. But many staffers are unsure what to expect, given that DeVos in the past said bluntly that “government really sucks”; that as a candidate, President Trump suggested dismantling their agency; and that this week, Rep. Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) introduced a one-sentence bill to abolish the department as of Dec. 31, 2018.
Phil Rosenfelt, a longtime career employee who served as acting secretary until DeVos was sworn in Tuesday, spoke before DeVos. He compared the transition process to a wedding, merging two families into one. “We are one team,” he said.
But Rosenfelt also delivered something of a pep talk. Education may not be specifically mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, he said, but “it’s at the heart of the opportunity that the Constitution provides for our nation.”
He said the agency’s basic mission — to press for equity and opportunity for all students — is unchanged. And he praised the work of its employees, calling them “nimble, innovative, thoughtful, creative and open to new ideas.”
“I wake up every day excited to come to work with all of you, and I always knew that the Education Department was the best place to work,” he said to applause.
DeVos said the department’s mission — to serve the next generation — is “noble and consequential.”
“My challenge to you is simple: Think big, be bold and act to serve students,” she said. “And I will promise you this: Together, we will find new ways in which we can positively transform education.”
Her opponents, including Democrats, teachers unions and civil rights activists, have promised to keep close watch. Outside the headquarters Tuesday afternoon, nearly two dozen protesters chanted, “Welcome to your first day, we will not go away!” They were organized by an arm of the left-leaning Center for American Progress.