Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Thursday that she intends to forge ahead with her approach to overhauling U.S. schools, declaring that the Obama administration’s efforts to improve them had failed “miserably” and taking a swipe at journalists and critics who have called her ill-prepared for her new job.
“The media has had its fun with me, and that’s okay,” DeVos said, speaking to activists at the Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Md. “My job isn’t to win a popularity contest with the media or the education establishment here in Washington. My job as secretary of education is to make education work for students.”
DeVos briefly addressed her withdrawal Wednesday of Obama-era federal guidelines meant to protect transgender students from discrimination at school. It was her first major policy move since she was confirmed Feb. 7, and one she reportedly resisted, only to relent under pressure from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and President Trump. But she gave no sign Thursday that she disagreed with withdrawal of the guidance, which LGBT activists have called an attack on transgender children.
“This issue was a very huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach to suggest a one-size-fits-all, federal-government approach, top-down approach to issues best dealt with at a personal level, at a local level,” DeVos said in response to a question from CNN contributor and Trump supporter Kayleigh McEnany.
“It’s our job to protect students and to do that to the fullest extent that we can — and also to provide students, parents and teachers with more flexibility about how education is delivered and how education is experienced, and to protect and preserve personal freedoms.”
DeVos is a Michigan billionaire who has spent the past three decades lobbying for taxpayer-funded vouchers in statehouses around the country, and her supporters praise her as a bold reformer who is willing and able to upend the status quo to improve U.S. education.
But she stumbled over basic education policy questions during her Senate confirmation hearing, clips of which went viral and became fodder for late-night comics. She was confirmed by the slimmest of margins after Democrats and two Republicans voted to reject her, citing concerns about her lack of personal and professional experience in public schools.
DeVos argued Thursday that education is failing too many students, pointing to “flatlined” test scores (presumably on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also called the Nation’s Report Card) and more than 1.3 million youths who drop out of school each year. The Obama administration’s $7 billion investment in overhauling the worst schools, called the School Improvement Grant program, didn’t work, DeVos said, making reference to a study by the administration that found no increase in test scores or graduation rates at schools that got the money.
“They tested their model, and it failed miserably,” she said. She emphasized that she was not indicting teachers.
She has said that she wants to return as much authority over education as possible to states and districts, and intends to identify programs and initiatives to cut at the Education Department. She has also made clear that she intends to use her platform to expand alternatives to public schools, including charter schools, online schools and private schools that students attend with the help of public funds.
“We have a unique window of opportunity to make school choice a reality for millions of families,” she said. “Both the president and I believe that providing an equal opportunity for a quality education is an imperative that all students deserve.”
DeVos, who has said very little about her views on higher education, criticized colleges for being hostile to conservatives.
“The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say and, more ominously, what to think. They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community,” DeVos said. “But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”
Later, in response to a question from McEnany, DeVos offered this advice to conservative students: “Don’t shut up. Keep talking. Keep making your arguments,” she said. “You can do so respectfully and with civility, but I think you need to do so with confidence. We need to have opposing viewpoints and differing ideas in an academic environment.”