Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is pushing back against a social media outcry over a proposal to slash $17.6 million in federal funding for the Special Olympics — a cut DeVos has objected to in the past.
In a statement Wednesday, she blamed the media and some members of Congress for “falsehoods and fully misrepresenting the facts” a day after her defense of the Trump administration budget request during a congressional hearing went viral. Some tweets claimed DeVos had already cut the funding, which goes to programs in thousands of U.S. schools and not global Special Olympics competitions.
Story Continued Below
“Make no mistake: We are focused every day on raising expectations and improving outcomes for infants and toddlers, children and youth with disabilities, and are committed to confronting and addressing anything that stands in the way of their success,” she said. “The President’s budget reflects that commitment.”
The department’s fiscal 2020 proposal would eliminate federal money for Special Olympics Education programs. The department’s last two budget proposals would also have eliminated federal funding, but nothing would be cut unless Congress agreed to do so, and Congress has rejected administration plans. In fact, Congress has increased the funding.
The White House has consistently included the Special Olympics cuts in its budget proposals, despite past objections from DeVos, a former agency official involved in previous budget processes told POLITICO.
“This has always come from the White House,” the former official said, speaking on background.
After testifying about the administration’s first budget proposal in 2017, DeVos was “fired up,” saying it was shortsighted for the administration to pick a fight over such a small line item in the department’s budget, the former official said. Her objections were ignored and the proposed cut returned in 2018 and again this year.
The federal cash is just a portion of the overall revenue from all sources for the Special Olympics, which reported $124 million in unrestricted revenues, gains and other support for the year ending Dec. 31, 2017, in a financial statement posted on its website.
“We had to make some difficult decisions with this budget,” DeVos said during a Tuesday hearing before the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending.
DeVos has had personal contact with a top backer of the Special Olympics and has made personal contributions to the organization.
Last December, DeVos had a phone call scheduled with Tim Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, according to her calendar released by the Education Department under the Freedom of Information Act.
In addition, DeVos in 2018 announced she would donate part of her salary to the Special Olympics. The announcement came after she fumbled a question on special education during her confirmation in 2017 and suggested that states should handle enforcement of a federal law that protects the civil rights of children with disabilities, called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. She later clarified that she’s committed to enforcing special education law.
The department-funded grants to Special Olympics go toward sports, clubs and activities in schools throughout the country, not the Special Olympics competitions involving athletes from around the world.
These “unified” programs, including children with and without disabilities in the same activities, are now in 6,500 schools, and are expected to be in 7,500 schools by the end of the school year, said Andrea Cahn, senior director of the Unified Champion Schools program.
“The idea is using sport as the catalyst for social inclusion,” Cahn said. “What we’ve found is that this combination of activities can reduce bullying, reduce teasing and negative language. It has all kinds of positive impacts.”
On Tuesday, Democrats pounced on the proposed cut during the hearing, with Rep. Barbara Lee of California calling the plan “appalling.”
“I still can’t understand why you would go after disabled children in your budget,” Lee said.
Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) was among those who sparked a reaction on Twitter, sharing a video of an exchange in which he asks DeVos if she knows how many children would be affected by her plan. She did not. “It’s 272,000 kids. … I’ll answer it for you, that’s OK,” he informed her.
One incorrect tweet that DeVos had “cut all funding” for the program gained traction, helped by a retweet from actress and activist Alyssa Milano to her 3.5 million followers. The first tweet’s author later clarified that the cut was proposed.
Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education spending, said his subcommittee’s bill wouldn’t cut Special Olympics funding. Blunt introduced legislation in 2004 to authorize the Special Olympics school program. DeVos will testify before the subcommittee on Thursday.
“I’m a longtime supporter of Special Olympics and proud that Missouri is home to the largest Special Olympics training facility in the world,” Blunt said in a statement. “I was just at the World Games and saw, as I have many times before, what a huge impact the organization has on athletes, their families, and their communities. Our Department of Education appropriations bill will not cut funding for the program.”
In her statement, DeVos pointed to the department’s $13.2 billion request — the same level appropriated by Congress — for funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that would support 7 million students with disabilities. The money goes to states to help ensure students with disabilities have the resources and support they need.
The budget also requests an additional $225.6 million for competitively awarded grants to support teacher preparation, research and technical assistance to support students with disabilities, she said.
“The Special Olympics is not a federal program. It’s a private organization,” DeVos said in her statement. “I love its work, and I have personally supported its mission. Because of its important work, it is able to raise more than $100 million every year. There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money. But given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”
Shriver said on MSNBC Wednesday that the organization is fighting bullying, social exclusion, low performance for underachieving kids, and all of the ways that children with special needs are marginalized and excluded.
“We have shifted into an educational mission that has state and local implications,” he said. “But the federal government, if it believes in full inclusion, and it does — our Constitution, our declaration and our laws tell us we do — and if the federal government has a role to support that, it ought to be investing in kids with special needs.”
Benjamin Wermund, Michael Stratford, Caitlin Emma and Rebecca Morin contributed to this report.