President Trump praised his new education secretary, Betsy DeVos, on Tuesday morning, saying that she had endured “a very unfair trial” before her confirmation last week and pledging an effort to overhaul education.
“We want every child to have an opportunity to climb the ladder to success,” Trump said at the White House before a meeting with parents and teachers. “It all begins with education and that’s why we’re here this morning.”
Trump criticized “failing schools,” echoing language he used on the campaign trail. “Millions of poor, disadvantaged students are trapped in poor, failing schools,” he said. “We’re going to change it around, especially for the African American communities.”
DeVos, a major Republican donor and longtime advocate for vouchers and other alternatives to public schools, stumbled over basic policy questions at her Senate confirmation hearing, making her the target of late-night comics and helping to fuel a popular uprising against her nomination. She barely won confirmation Feb. 7 as all members of the Senate’s Democratic caucus and two Republicans voted to oppose her, citing her lack of experience.
Protesters briefly blocked DeVos from entering a D.C. middle school last week, her first visit to a K-12 public school since taking office. The parents gathered at the White House Tuesday were a friendlier crowd.
“I’m really excited to be here today with parents and educators, representing traditional public schools, charter public schools, home schools, private schools — a range of choices,” said DeVos, who sat next to Trump during the event. Vice President Pence, who cast a historic tiebreaking vote to confirm DeVos last week, was also in attendance, as were aides Kellyanne Conway and Stephen Miller.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, accused Trump and DeVos of “using their power and positions to denigrate and demean the public schools that 90 percent of our children attend.” DeVos must “demonstrate that she takes seriously her responsibility to our kids — not through photo ops or sound bites — but by responding in a real and thoughtful way to what parents and teachers need to strengthen public schools,” Weingarten said.
About 10 parents, teachers and administrators participated in the White House meeting. Trump asked Jane Quenneville, principal of a Virginia school focused on special education, whether she had noticed a big increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism. Quenneville said she had.
“So what’s going on with autism, when we look at the tremendous increases, really, it’s such an incredible — it’s really a horrible thing to watch,” Trump said. “Maybe we can do something.”