Betsy DeVos, the current U.S Secretary of Education, feels that it’s possible to hold contrary views without being contrary. She has core values that are as firm as steel, but she can communicate with others in ways that can be forthright without being combative or immovable.
Take, for instance, the certainly controversial issue of transgender students using the school restrooms of their gender identification. The Trump administration was about to announce that this policy would change, and DeVos met first with representatives of gay and transgender U.S. Department of Education staffers to issue a heads-up.
While her aides first communicated the fact, in her presence, that DeVos had been opposed to the change, the Secretary calmly and factually explained the change without editorializing. She then defended the policy change in a speech given to the Conservative Political Action Conference — because that was her duty.
DeVos stays ever-gracious in style and approach, but she’s driven to push for change that she thinks is necessary and beneficial, despite sometimes confronting waves of protest. A smile is not a sign of weakness to Secretary DeVos.
While she’s gotten plenty of pushback in her current assignment for an administration that seems to welcome friction, this term wouldn’t be her first time. DeVos has also found fractious audiences when leading the charge for charter schools and tuition vouchers in her native West Michigan (even starting a highly respected school in the process), and when chairing her state’s Republican party, passing legislation and working to unseat Michigan legislators who clashed with her.
One of those frequent policy clashes was on the subject of public funding of charter schools, including conservatively religious institutions, through voucher programs. While adversaries protested against the channeling of limited public school dollars to privately operated schools, DeVos pointed out the failures of the existing schools as an excuse to look outside the public arena for answers.
It was this growing reputation in the field of education reform that landed DeVos the top education position within the Trump administration.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, refers to DeVos as being personable, plain-spoken, but dangerous (a compliment from a union head), and cautions against underestimating the Secretary.
DeVos comes from wealth. Her family owned a billion-dollar auto parts business, but that was nothing compared to the in-laws’ financial situation. Rich DeVos, her father-in-law, co-founded Amway.
Through the Dick & Betsy DeVos Family Foundation, the Secretary and her immediate family have donated tens of millions of dollars annually to regional and statewide causes in healthcare, arts and culture, civic causes and other pursuits. The extended family has donated billions of dollars more over the years.
The younger couple have also used their wealth to advance Betsy’s education goals and even start the renowned and tuition-free West Michigan Aviation Academy high school.
Betsy DeVos is, indeed, a fighter. She fights for education and structural changes that will benefit American children and the value of an American education, but she can still deliver results with a forthright gaze, a gracious word and an encouraging smile.
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