U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos urged conservative activists Thursday to help her fight against the “education establishment,” which she said has blocked students from getting access to school choice and quality schools.
“Our nation’s test scores have flatlined,” DeVos told a roomful at the Conservative Political Action Conference, sponsored by the American Conservative Union. “The education establishment has been blocking the doorway to reforms, fixes, and improvements for a generation. ... This not a Left or Right issue. This is an American issue. We need education to work for every child. ... We have a unique window of opportunity to make school choice a reality for millions of families.”
It’s unclear how President Donald Trump and DeVos plan to move forward on their school choice vision. Trump pitched a $20 billion voucher program on the campaign trail, but that might be difficult to pass in Congress. Choice advocates are more optimistic about the prospects of extending federal tax credits to corporations and individuals that donate to scholarship-granting organizations.
And DeVos—who was greeted at the conference with cheers and shouts of “We love you!"—criticized the Obama administration’s now defunct School Improvement Grant program, saying it cost more than $7 billion, but that there’s no evidence that it improved student results.
“Their own report, issued as they walked out the door, showed that it had zero impact on student outcomes and performance,” DeVos said. “They tested their model, and it failed ... miserably.”
DeVos also urged college students to stand up for their rights on campuses that, she said, often seek to surpress conservative viewpoints.
“The faculty, from adjunct professors to deans, tell you what to do, what to say, and more ominously, what to think,” DeVos said. “They say that if you voted for Donald Trump, you’re a threat to the university community. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree ... Tweet and Snap every politician who thinks the status quo is OK and that they know better than you when it comes to your education,” DeVos said.
Despite her tough talk on the “education establishment,” DeVos had warm words for Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, in a quick interview with CNN’s Kayleigh McEnany, a conservative commentator. DeVos said she and Weingarten spoke last week and agreed to do two school visits together, one to a traditional public school and another to a “school of choice.”
“I had a great conversation with Randi,” DeVos said. “I think it’s imperative that we work together to find common ground. Students represent 100 percent of our future.”
And she told McEnany that “the role of the federal government [on K-12] should be as light a touch as possible.” She said she sees the new Every Student Succeeds Act, which Obama signed in 2015, as a chance to scale back the federal footprint on education. “The places where the federal government has a role [are] on special needs and on civil rights,” she said.
DeVos was one of Trump’s most controversial cabinet picks. She needed Vice President Mike Pence to put her over the top after the Senate deadlocked on her nomination. Thousands called Senate offices urging their representatives to defeat her. She’s been mocked on late night television and derided in thousands of Facebook posts and tweets.
But she had plenty of supporters in the crowd at CPAC.
“She should be given a chance,” said Andrea Raffle, who recently graduated from Catholic University and has worked on GOP campaigns. Raffle wore a pair of red shorts covered in white elephants to CPAC. “I’m a huge fan of school choice. Parents are in the best position to decide where their children go to school.”
The appearance at the conservative conference comes just a day after DeVos participated in her first big policy announcement: a rollback of the Obama administration’s guidance giving transgender students the right to use the school bathroom that matches their gender identity.
The Education Department and the Justice Department jointly issued a “Dear Colleague” letter to school districts rescinding that guidance Wednesday. According to published reports, DeVos was uncomfortable signing off, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions pressed forward. DeVos was given a choice between getting on board and resigning, the New York Times reported.
The letter includes a line stating that the choice to rescind the guidance doesn’t mean that the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students won’t be protected.
“All schools must ensure that all students, including LGBT students, are able to learn and thrive in a safe environment,” the letter rescinding the guidance says. “The Department of Education office for civil rights will continue its duty under law to hear all claims of discrimination and will explore every appropriate opportunity to protect all students and to encourage civility in our classrooms.”
And DeVos put out a statement late Wednesday sounding a similar theme, “We have a responsibility to protect every student in America and ensure that they have the freedom to learn and thrive in a safe and trusted environment,” she wrote. “I consider protecting all students, including LGBTQ students, not only a key priority for the department, but for every school in America.”
Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary said Wednesday that, while there were some discussions about the timing of the announcement, there was “no daylight” between members of the administration on the policy direction of the announcement. And he said that the administration placed a premium on state’s rights in making its move.
DeVos echoed that theme on Thursday in response to a question from McEnany.
“This issue was a very huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach,” DeVos said. She criticized the idea of “a one-size-fits-all, federal government knows best, top-down approach to issues that are best dealt with at a ... local level.”
During her rocky confirmation process, Democrats pressed DeVos on her commitment to LGBT rights, noting that some of her family members have donated to organizations that have opposed same-sex marriage and who support conversion therapy, the widely criticized practice of using counseling to change someone’s sexual preferences.
Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said in a Facebook post Wednesday that she was troubled that DeVos allowed the new guidance to proceed, despite her concerns.
“It is one thing to be ignorant of the impact of your decisions on the lives of kids, it’s another to be fully aware of how awful they would be and still allow them to happen anyway,” she wrote. “We need leaders who will stand up and fight for the safety and protection of children, not ones who will buckle under pressure.”
And DeVos’ reported discomfort didn’t assuage civil rights advocates who opposed both the move to rescind the guidance and her confirmation.
“I am less interested with what DeVos did or didn’t want,” said Liz King, the director of education policy at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “When it came time to be there for students, she wasn’t.”
Read DeVos’ full prepared remarks to CPAC below:
Hello! Thank you for that warm welcome. I always love the energy and enthusiasm CPAC brings together every year.
I’m Betsy DeVos. You may have heard some of the “wonderful” things the mainstream media has called me lately. I, however, pride myself on being called a mother, a grandmother, a life partner, and perhaps the first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
The media has had its fun with me, and that’s OK.
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.
But today, we know the system is failing too many kids.
Because our nation’s test scores have flatlined.
Because 1.3 million children drop out of school every year.
Because the previous administration spent seven billion of your dollars on “School Improvement Grants,” thinking they could demonstrate that money alone would solve the problem. Yet their own report, issued as they walked out the door, showed that it had zero impact on student outcomes and performance.
They tested their model, and it failed ... miserably.
This is not an indictment of teachers. We all know good public school teachers. My mom was one. Good teachers make a real difference. Good teachers deserve to be honored and compensated accordingly.
But the education establishment has been blocking the doorway to reforms, fixes, and improvements for a generation.
This not a Left or Right issue. This is an American issue. We need education to work for every child.
Let me ask you: Do you believe parents should be able to choose the best school for their child regardless of their ZIP code or family income?
Me too. And so does President Trump.
We have a unique window of opportunity to make school choice a reality for millions of families. Both the president and I believe that providing an equal opportunity for a quality education is an imperative that all students deserve.
Now let me ask you: How many of you are college students?
The fight against the education establishment extends to you too. 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. But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.
As Secretary, I don’t think the Department of Education in Washington should have more power over your decisions than you do. I took this job because I want to return power in education back to where it belongs: with parents, communities, and states.
We can do this, but only with your help.
Defenders of the status quo will stop at nothing to protect their special interests and their gig. So we need you to engage, to be loud and to never stop fighting for what we believe. We need you to call, write, email, tweet and Snap every politician who thinks the status quo is OK and that they know better than you when it comes to your education.
Together, we can make American education great again. The next generation deserves no less.
I thank you, and I look forward to fighting alongside you.