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DeVos, Defiant At CPAC, Walks A Fine Line On Transgender Rights

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center Thursday at National Harbor, Md.
Chip Somodevilla
Getty Images
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos addresses the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center Thursday at National Harbor, Md.

President Trump's education secretary, Betsy DeVos, struck a defiant tone in brief remarks before conservative activists at a political conference outside Washington, D.C., on Thursday. But she held back on the administration's rescinding of Obama administration guidance to schools on transgender rights.

"This issue was a very huge example of Obama administration overreach, one-size-fits-all approach to issues best solved at personal and local level," DeVos told the audience at the Conservative Political Action Conference, known as CPAC.

DeVos added that she and the Trump administration have "made clear, it's our job to protect students and teachers' flexibility and protect and preserve personal freedoms."

There were reported tensionsbetween DeVos and Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the joint decision made to rescind the Obama administration guidance that had required schools wanting to receive federal funding to allow transgender students to use bathrooms, locker rooms and participate on athletic teams corresponding with the gender with which they identified — rather than their gender at birth.

DeVos reportedly was uncomfortable with earlier draft language and wanted to stress protections for transgender students. That was reinforced with a DeVos statement put out separately from the joint letter with Sessions, in which DeVos stressed:

"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 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. ... I consider protecting all students, including LGBTQ students, not only a key priority for the Department, but for every school in America."

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Wednesday that there was "no daylight" between the president, Sessions or DeVos but that "there has been some discussion between the timing of the issuance and recommendations, or between the exact wording."

DeVos squeaked through the confirmation process, and in those hearings, she disavowed conversion therapy, which her family has invested in. Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota asked about it.

"I have never believed in that," she said, adding, "I fully embrace equality, and I believe in the innate value of every single human being, and that all students, no matter their age, should be able to attend a school and feel safe and be free of discrimination."

Earlier in her speech, DeVos struck an ideological tone about education. She took aim at the media and liberals, calling herself the "first person to tell Bernie Sanders to his face, there's no such thing as a free lunch."

That was meant to draw laughs from the conservative activists, but low-income schools, known as Title I schools, provide free and reduced lunches and breakfasts to low socioeconomic students. As of 2012, 31 million children benefited from the National School Lunch program. The National School Lunch Act was signed by President Truman in 1946.

"The media has had its fun with me," DeVos said, noting, however, "my job isn't to win popularity contests" with the media or the "Washington education establishment."

She criticized $7 billion in school grants given out by the Obama Education Department. She said that administration thought "money alone would solve the problem. They tested their model and failed miserably."

She also spoke out against university administrators and professors "telling you what to think." She said the "real threat is silencing people with whom you disagree."

The University of California, Berkeley drew Trump's tweeting ire after protesters blocked Milo Yiannopoulos, the controversial former Breitbart editor, from speaking there. But he is the same speaker CPAC disinvited after video surfaced of him seeming to defend pedophilia.

DeVos praised "good teachers" and said they should be paid accordingly, but she blasted "defenders of the status quo." Teachers unions were vociferously against DeVos' nomination.

NPR's Brin Winterbottom contributed to this post.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.
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