After a historically controversial confirmation process, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos addressed her new employees Wednesday in a speech that stressed unity and a shared mission in serving students.
Though DeVos did not specifically address the criticism that dogged her fragile confirmation, she spoke broadly to themes of student equity and inclusion. Criticism of DeVos has often focused on her seeming lack of knowledge about or dedication to these issues.
DeVos even made a joke about her now-famous comment about school employees needing guns to protect students from grizzly bears. The comment, which she made during her confirmation hearing in January, quickly became fodder for late-night television hosts.
“For me personally, this confirmation process and drama it engendered has been bit of a bear,” joked DeVos in her first speech to U.S. Department of Education staff.
DeVos was narrowly confirmed Tuesday with a margin of 51-50. After every Democratic senator and two Republican senators voted against her, Vice President Mike Pence was forced to cast the tie-breaking vote. A vice president has never had to break a tie for a Cabinet nominee.
Critics of DeVos portray her as an unequivocal enemy of traditional public schools. Indeed, in previous speeches she has called the American education system “embarrassing.” Although DeVos has never formally worked in schools, she has spent decades as an education activist, pouring a portion of her family’s vast wealth into educational causes.
After putting up a lackluster performance at her confirmation hearing ― in which she appeared stumped by some basic education policy questions ― opposition to DeVos ballooned, with senators facing a deluge of calls encouraging them to vote against her.
In her speech Wednesday, DeVos tried to assuage fears that she would unilaterally shake up traditional education. Although she positioned herself as someone unafraid of change, she stressed her commitment to cooperation and willingness to learn from Department of Education employees and stakeholders, even those with whom she disagrees.
DeVos acknowledged that “we’ve just come through one of the most bruising, divisive elections.” But she struck a slightly different tone than her boss, President Donald Trump, telling the room the U.S. is a “pluralistic culture, and we must celebrate our differences.”
She said she is “committed to working with everyone and anyone,” from “every walk of life” and background.
Some are worried that DeVos will gut the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which works to enforce equal access to education across race, gender, religion and sexuality. She did not directly address these concerns, but said, “the department also has a unique role in protecting students.”
In previous weeks, DeVos’ supporters have portrayed her as someone who is unafraid of making painful changes to achieve a desired end. However, she may have a difficult time garnering enough support to do so. Many of the Education Department’s plans have to first go through Congress, where she’s likely to continue to face stiff opposition.
Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) noted Tuesday that DeVos could not do much “without congressional approval.”
“That’s the myth from the other side, that she could somehow appropriate the resources in a way that’s inconsistent with federal law ― and that just can’t happen,” he said.
A Tuesday statement from the National Education Association ― the nation’s largest teachers union ― said the overwhelming opposition to DeVos denies the Trump administration the ability to “take over our public schools.”
“The level of energy is palpable. We are going to watch what Betsy DeVos does. And we are going to hold her accountable for the actions and decisions she makes on behalf of the more than 50 million students in our nation’s public schools,” said the statement from NEA President Lily Eskelen Garcia, who has fiercely opposed DeVos.