Education Secretary Betsy DeVos didn’t dance around the obvious in her speech Thursday at the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC.
First, DeVos addressed actions taken Wednesday night by the Education Department and Justice Department to rescind the Obama administration’s controversial transgender guidance to schools.
That directive had required schools to allow students who identify as transgender to use the restrooms, locker rooms, and similar facilities based on their gender identity instead of their biological sex—or face loss of federal funds.
In talking about the Trump administration’s actions to undo the mandate, DeVos attempted to walk a line between opposing what she considers federal overreach by the Obama administration and affirming her commitment to protecting the rights of all students.
“This issue was a huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach.” —@BetsyDeVos
“This issue was a huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach to suggest a one-size-fits-all … top-down approach to issues that are best dealt with and solved at a personal level and a local level,” DeVos said, adding:
I have also made clear from the moment I have been in this job that it is 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 around how education is delivered and how education is experienced, and to protect and preserve personal freedoms.
DeVos faced questions from both sides of the aisle after The New York Times reported she initially disagreed with Attorney General Jeff Sessions and opposed a draft of the Trump administration’s plan to withdraw the transgender guidance issued by the Obama administration.
Following that report, DeVos released a statement:
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. This is not merely a federal mandate, but a moral obligation no individual, school, district, or state can abdicate. At my direction, the [Education] Department’s Office for Civil Rights remains committed to investigating all claims of discrimination, bullying, and harassment against those who are most vulnerable in our schools.
The Trump administration’s actions Wednesday night could affect a gender identity case set for oral argument at the Supreme Court next month, one that depends in large part on the Department of Education’s position.
DeVos had a rocky start to her new role as head of the Department of Education. She faced one of the toughest confirmation processes of all President Donald Trump’s Cabinet nominees, culminating with Mike Pence’s casting the first tie-breaking vote in history to confirm a Cabinet appointment.
Throughout it all, the media didn’t go easy.
“The media has had its fun with me, and that’s OK,” DeVos said at CPAC.
But her job, DeVos added, “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,” she said.
DeVos said her top priorities include returning power in education back to parents, communities, and states, expanding school choice, and encouraging free speech on college campuses.
About this last issue, she told students listening in the audience: “Don’t shut up.”
“Keep talking. Keep making your arguments. You can do so respectively … but you need to do so with confidence.”
CPAC, the largest annual national gathering of conservative activists, runs from Wednesday to Saturday at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, just outside Washington.