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Betsy DeVos Tells Her Side to Conservative Opinion Journalists

By Alyson Klein — February 13, 2017 4 min read
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In her first print and radio interviews since taking the helm of the U.S. Department of Education, brand-new Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos opened up about the difficulties of her rocky confirmation process to conservative opinion journalists in Michigan.

DeVos gave her first print interview to a Michigan-based opinion page editor whose paper endorsed her as secretary, and her first radio interview to Paul W. Smith, a conservative talk show host, also from the Wolverine State. Smith started his chat with DeVos by telling her, “you know that we’re supportive of you.”

DeVos’ divisive confirmation process—culminating in a tie vote that Vice President Mike Pence had to break—was a theme of both conversations.

DeVos told Ingrid Jacques, the deputy editorial page editor of the Detroit News, that she could have answered some questions in her confirmation hearing “better or more articulately.” But she added, “in my defense, the questioners had no interest in really hearing a full response, I don’t think. I did not want to be combative. I wanted to continue to be respectful and to try to reflect the kind of demeanor that I think we should have surrounding these conversations.” And she said the opposition to her candidacy has “made me more resolute.”

And Smith the Michigan-based radio host, kicked off his interview by telling DeVos he was thrilled to finally be able to introduce her as the education secretary. He asked DeVos why she thought her confirmation process had been so fraught.

“The work that I’ve done is a threat to those who are protectors and defenders of the status quo and of a system that has continued to fail way too many of our young people,” she told him.

Smith and DeVos also had a brief exchange about a question at her hearing from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., on proficiency versus growth—Smith noted, correctly, that states were expected to get students to proficiency under the No Child Left Behind Act. And he described growth in a way that most educators would probably argue doesn’t capture the concept, saying that a student who thinks two plus two equals six at the beginning of the year thinking that two plus two equals five at the end of the year would constitute “growth.”

DeVos chuckled at that description.

And she said the growth vs. proficiency debate is “very much an insider discussion. ... Those are important conversations to have. [But] the more important conversation to have in the future is ... are students learning the things that they need to know, how are they mastering and becoming competent in the things they need to know? That conversation is, I think, more important than having a conversation about growth versus proficiency.”

Both Jacques and Smith asked DeVos about her plans for the department.

DeVos told Smith her goal is to ensure that all schools “meet the need of every child that they serve and in the cases that they don’t, parents and students should have other alternatives. ... All schools should be great for the children that they serve.”

And she told Jacques she wants to help states and districts implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, as well as move forward on reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

You can read the full interview with the Detroit News here, and listen to DeVos’ radio interview below:

Is it a good idea for DeVos to reach out initially to conservative, Michigan-based media? Experienced education communication professionals we asked about that said it may make sense, for now, but that eventually DeVos and company should seek a wider audience.

“I think it’s an unsurprising move when you look at the way she has been treated over the last few months,” said Patrick Riccards, who served as a communications point-person for Democrats on Capitol Hill and helped the George W. Bush administration do outreach on a reading initiative. “Whether it’s the right decision is a different question. My argument would be that her effort really needs to go into building a coalition of the willing [behind her ideas]. You’re not going to bring about major transformation in K-12 education by only talking to your friends.”

And Chad Colby, who served as a deputy assistant secretary for communications in the Education Department during the George W. Bush administration, said the strategy of talking to generally sympathetic media initially is a good move for someone with DeVos’ background.

Past education secretaries—including the most recent trio of John King, Arne Duncan, and Margaret Spellings—came from jobs where they took a lot of incoming fire from the media, something DeVos didn’t have to deal with as the head of an advocacy organization.

“Any communications professional would say, ‘Do some interviews, get comfortable with your voice,’ and I think that is a good strategy for her now,” said Colby, who is a vice president for communications and outreach at Achieve, a non-profit, but spoke only on his own behalf. He expects DeVos will bring in folks who can build relationships with education reporters working for a wider range of publications. Until then? “Press needs to be a little bit patient.”

Protesters gather outside Jefferson Middle School in Washington on Friday, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was scheduled to make first visit to a public school as education secretary.-- Maria Danilova/AP

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