Betsy DeVos speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference. (Screen shot via CNN)
Betsy DeVos took the stage at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) just one day after reports surfaced of her initial opposition to the Trump administration’s rollback on protections for transgender students.
She used her time onstage at CPAC to show she was in line with the Trump administration stance, arguing that Obama’s Title IX protections were a “huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach.”
But throughout her speech and into the following Q&A with CNN commentator Kayleigh McEnany, DeVos seemed to pivot her position on states’ rights.
For instance, she spoke about college campuses and how conservative students may feel intimidated from sharing their views with liberal peers and professors.
“They say if you voted for Donald Trump, you are a threat to the community,” she told the crowd. “But the real threat is silencing the First Amendment rights of people with whom you disagree.”
Despite this reference to the protection of civil rights, she then remarked on her desire to “return power in education back where it belongs.”
Perhaps DeVos, who has little political experience, was initially more socially liberal than her Trump administration colleagues. But after Wednesday’s news, DeVos has clearly fallen in line: her speech was filled with Trump-esque rhetoric, such as criticisms of the Washington “education establishment.”
“Together we can make American education great again,” she exclaimed at one point during her speech.
DeVos did not touch upon the transgender rights issue specifically until she was seated across from McEnany, who immediately asked the Education Secretary about Wednesday’s reports.
In her answer, DeVos waffled between supporting the Trump administration stance and championing civil rights as a broad concept. She told McEnany:
I think the statement spoke for itself and to a large extent. Let me just say that this issue was a very huge example of the Obama administration’s overreach – to suggest a one-size-fits-all, federal approach, top-down approach, to issues that are best dealt with and solved at a personal level and on a local level. And I have made clear from the moment I’ve been in this job that it’s 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.
Throughout the rest of the Q&A, DeVos juggled being pro-states’ rights, the typical conservative stance, with explaining how the Department of Education would intervene to uphold civil rights.
“I think the role of the federal government should be as light a touch as possible,” she said at one point, before quickly adding that the DOE would make sure special needs students and civil rights issues were protected around the country.
Her answers reflect a broader contradiction in many socially conservative positions: the desire to uphold “personal freedoms” as an ideal, while simultaneously opposing federal intervention in cases where civil rights are being stifled.
Perhaps this contradiction is best expressed in DeVos’ closing remarks. When asked about academic freedom by McEnany, DeVos gave this generic response:
We need to have opposing viewpoints and different ideas in an academic [environment], any environment where ideas are necessary to be exchanged. I just urge and encourage all of the college students here, or any student, to continue to bring your ideas and your viewpoints. That’s the best way to learn, and the best way for us to learn how to get along together as well.
Unfortunately, DeVos has made it abundantly clear that when it comes to the civil rights of transgender people, the Trump administration would prefer if Americans kept their “viewpoints” to themselves.