U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos—who took office after barely squeaking through a bruising confirmation process—kicked off her tenure by calling Wednesday for unity and saying she was ready to learn from long-time employees and the field.
“The obstacles between our nation’s students and their pursuit of excellence can all can be overcome,” she said, speaking to staff members at Education Department headquarters. “They’re human problems. All too often adult issues can complicate and get in the way of a focus upon those we serve. The good news is: We can all work together to find solutions and make them happen.” (Read DeVos’ remarks as prepared here.)
DeVos, a billionaire philanthropist and school choice advocate, is best known for her championship of charters and especially private school vouchers. But she didn’t mention those policies—which many view as an assault on the department’s public education mission—in her speech.
Instead, she focused on the challenges educators and students face, without offering any specifics.
“From students who may be struggling, to hard-working teachers who feel stifled, special needs students and families to whom we owe our full support, leaders and administrators seeking clarity and evidence-based solutions, the department has a complex population to champion,” DeVos said.
She kicked things off with a joke at her own expense: “For me personally, this confirmation process and the drama that it engendered has been a bit of bear"—an obvious reference to her much-mocked statement during her confirmation hearing that schools in remote areas might need guns to protect themselves from “potential grizzlies.”
DeVos, who is best known for chairing the American Federation for Children, a school choice advocacy organization, also sought to address questions about her experience—she’s never run a bureaucracy or worked in a school district professionally.
“Even though I’m a grandmother, since this is my first day, I know that I am the newbie,” DeVos told a roomful of career staffers and political appointees. “I pledge to listen and learn from you and from stakeholders around our country. I hope to earn your trust and confidence as we work together.”
And she tried to reassure those who worry that the department might back away from its civil rights mission during her tenure.
“The department also has a unique role in protecting students. We believe students deserve learning environments that foster innovation and curiosity, and are also free from harm,” she said.
But it might take more than a few speeches for DeVos to convince educators she has their students’ best interest at heart. After her confirmation hearing, hundreds of thousand of teachers called into Capitol Hill, pleading with lawmakers not to confirm her because of what they saw as her anti-public education agenda and a lack of qualifications.
And she was widely panned for her role in creating Michigan’s charter sector, which is dominated by for-profit charters that have posted decidedly mixed results when it comes to student achievement.
Numerous demonstrations sprung up around the country in opposition to her nomination, from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, to DeVos’ hometown of Holland, Mich. There were even protestors outside the agency on the day of DeVos’ first speech.
DeVos was introduced by Phil Rosenfelt, who served as the acting secretary before she was sworn in Tuesday. The two spent the morning touring the agency together.
Rosenfelt has worked at the department since the early 1970s, before it was a cabinet-level agency, and told career staffers watching online that he has weathered numerous presidential transitions.
“Each is different, some are easier than others,” Rosenfelt, who is now acting general counsel, said. “I am hopeful that this transition will be one of the most successful ones that we’ve ever had.”