On Thursday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos walked out on to the main stage at CPAC and asked the audience for a moment of silence. The photos of the 17 dead, killed in the latest school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last week appeared on the giant screens framing the stage. A hush fell over the auditorium. With “CPAC” shining in bold illuminated letters behind them, a subdued DeVos and her interviewer Kay Cole James, president of the Heritage Foundation, each clasped their hands and bent their heads toward the ground.
It was a sober start and a sharp contrast to the spirited scene for the politician who preceded her, Ted Cruz. People launched out of their seats to cheer the Texas Senator as his voice rose, his diction grew sharper, his cadence quickened, and he urged young people to “spread the fire of liberty.” Cruz was just one in a slew of conservative headliners DeVos followed at the Conservative Political Action Conference, held at the National Harbor in Maryland.
Days before, DeVos had called for a congressional hearing on school shootings. “We’ve seen, you know, lots of finger pointing back and forth. But we need to have a conversation at the level where lawmakers can actually impact the future, because going back to and putting myself in the seat of one of those families impacted, you know, one of these shootings is one too many,” she said. “Congress has to lead on this. It’s their job.”
But even as Devos quickly shifted to other topics, the gun debate overshadowed the proceedings. The evening before the White House held a “listening session,” on the Parkland massacre. President Donald Trump, accompanied by Vice President Mike Pence and DeVos, sat down with more than 40 students, educators, and parents. Six of the students attending were from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the site of the shootings. Voices rose, tears flowed, and Trump held notes that showed what he should say to the Parkland survivors. Julia Cordover, the student body president, who advocates for “less guns, not more guns,” told Trump, “I am confident you will do the right thing.”
The next morning Trump took to Twitter to say he was going to strongly push comprehensive background checks and raise the age to 21 for those allowed to buy assault-style weapons. He then defended the NRA.
Meanwhile, a few hours before DeVos’s appearance, NRA executive Wayne LaPierre took to the main stage at CPAC to fiercely defend the Second Amendment and said he wished more people heeded his words after the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 kids and six adults were shot and killed. “The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” he said repeating his words from nearly six years ago.
When CPAC released its schedule Monday, organizers withheld the time of LaPierre’s appearance and any mention of the NRA. The NRA heavily funds the American Conservative Union, which runs CPAC.
With high school students protesting gun violence across the country—and trying to make receiving NRA funding a badge of shame—it’s not surprising that DeVos did not highlight her appearance at NRA-funded conference. While CPAC’s schedule listed her appearance, DeVos’s own Department of Education schedule omitted her talk, and only displayed last week’s events, US News and World Report noted. (The lack of information about DeVos’s whereabouts has become a pattern, prompting questions about whether secretary of education is trying to avoid the press and further protests.)
But as DeVos delved into her discussion with James, she quickly veered away from the shooting victims and into some of her favorite—and less controversial—topics. DeVos encouraged states to take advantage of “Every Student Succeeds Act” and for states to lead on education policy. “Most education policy takes place at the state level,” she said. “I’m urging and encouraging states to double down on that and for those that haven’t to do so.”
The secretary of education then launched into her signature issue: school choice. DeVos noted that there were many mechanisms other than just vouchers, including tax scholarships, blended learning schools, and charter schools. “I think the core issue is that we, as a country, really need to embrace education freedom,” she said. “[Kids] are all very different individually. Kids learn differently,” she said, adding that a one size fits all approach doesn’t work. “For 150 years we’ve relied primarily on a system that treated education as a factory or with an industrial approach.”
Military families also needed school choice, said DeVos. One-third of active duty families have school-aged children, said DeVos, noting that there are “many active duty families today who make decisions” for their career “based on education opportunities for their children.”
The proposal would set up educational savings accounts for military personnel. The government would fund the account, and military families could then put that money, earmarked for public schools, toward charter schools or other options. The Heritage Foundation is promoting its own version of this plan.
From school choice, DeVos moved on to apprenticeships. Americans have focused on four-year college; but her administration wants to encourage some alternative routes into the workforce.
“Six million jobs that are going unfilled today that require further education past high school, but are going unfilled because of a mismatch in skills,” she said, suggesting if more people had a two-year degrees or apprenticeships, they would find jobs. Many economists agree in part with the assessment, although they also note that employers are asking for more skills than they need and that if wages rose, U.S. companies wouldn’t have so many unfilled positions.
James also asked for DeVos about the apparent resistance many conservative students face when they speak about their political beliefs in high schools and on college campuses. (When James asked those college students in the audience to raise their hands, about half of the audience did.) "We have seen more and more examples on college campuses in recent years shutting down free expression and debate of ideas," DeVos responded, seemingly throwing a bone to the next panel, titled, “Kim Jong University: How College Campuses are Turning into Reeducation Camps,” which claimed that college campuses are fostering liberal puppets. “The place to have fights is in the battle of ideas.”
Yet today, young people—both high school and college students—are battling with another powerful idea: the need to rein in easy access to guns to prevent gun violence that continues to erupt on their campuses. That’s an idea that DeVos would prefer to gloss over.