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New Education Chief Betsy DeVos Cracks Bear Joke, Asks for Patience

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos met her staff with a joke about her rough confirmation process and promises to challenge and listen.
Image: DeVos
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks at the Education Department on her first day as secretary Wednesday in Washington, D.C.Jim Watson / AFP - Getty Images

Newly sworn-in Education Secretary Betsy DeVos introduced herself to her staff Wednesday with a joke about her widely lampooned confirmation hearing performance — and then hinted of clashes over her plans to redirect the agency.

DeVos, a billionaire school-choice advocate who has never worked in or sent her kids to public schools, came under fire from critics who said she didn't know enough about education policy. She gave them ammunition several times — especially when senators asked her about guns in schools. Citing the case of a rural Wyoming school, she said she imagined the need " to protect from potential grizzlies."

That quotation became a rallying cry for opponents and an internet meme.

Related: Betsy DeVos Cites Grizzly Bears During Guns-in-Schools Debate

DeVos barely survived a vote Tuesday in the Senate, with Vice President Mike Pence called to the Capitol to break a 50-50 tie.

On Wednesday, DeVos acknowledged the brutal response with a smile.

"Let's turn to the recent headlines," she said. "There's no need to pull punches. For me personally, this confirmation process and the drama it engendered has been a bit of a bear."

The audience laughed and applauded.

Related: Betsy DeVos Vote: Pence's History-Making Tie Breaker Confirms Controversial Education Secretary

Then she got serious.

DeVos, a major political donor and investor in private and charter schools, has raised fears that she'll try to dismantle the 50 million-student public education system despite her lack of experience in the field.

DeVos set the scene for showdowns by asking her staff to be "more open and patient with views different from our own."

She went on: "Let's make this deal. I will challenge all on how and why we've done things a certain way, but I will listen to each of you and your ideas on how we can do better for students. You are professionals whom I respect."