Education Secretary Betsy DeVos defends plan to eliminate Special Olympics funding
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Wednesday defended a proposal to eliminate funding for the Special Olympics, pushing back against a storm of criticism from athletes, celebrities and politicians who rallied to support the organization.
DeVos became a target on social media after Democrats slammed her plan to remove the group's funding as part of nearly $7 billion in budget cuts for next year. The Special Olympics received $17.6 million from the Education Department this year, roughly 10 percent of its overall revenue.
In a statement responding to criticism, DeVos said she "loves" the organization's work and has "personally supported its mission." But she also noted that it's a private nonprofit that raises $100 million a year on its own. Ultimately, she argued, her agency can't afford to continue backing it.
"There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don't get a dime of federal grant money," she said. "Given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations."
Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver on Wednesday pushed back against the proposed cut.
"This is not the old Special Olympics, it's not my mom's Special Olympics in some ways," he said on MSNBC. "This is a new Special Olympics. We are actively engaged in the educational purposes that the country has articulated at the federal level."
In a statement posted Wednesday night on its website, the organization called on "federal, state and local governments to join Special Olympics in remaining vigilant against any erosion of provisions that have made a substantial difference in the lives of people with (intellectual disabilities)."
The statement added, "U.S. Government funding for our education programming is critical to protecting and increasing access to services for people with intellectual disabilities."
The Trump administration tried to eliminate Special Olympics funding in its previous budget proposal, too, but Congress ultimately increased funding for the group. Lawmakers indicated that the latest attempt will also fail.
"Our Department of Education appropriations bill will not cut funding for the program," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., chairman of the Senate subcommittee over the education budget. Blunt said he's a "longtime supporter" of the group and recently attended its World Games.
DeVos is expected to present her budget to Blunt's panel Thursday, just days after being grilled over it in the House. Democrats on a House subcommittee asked DeVos how she could cut Special Olympics funding while calling for a $60 million increase in charter school funding.
"Once again, I still can't understand why you would go after disabled children in your budget. You've zeroed that out. It's appalling," Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said at the hearing.
DeVos told the panel that her department "had to make some difficult decisions," adding that the Special Olympics is best supported by philanthropy.
Following the hearing, Twitter was alight with comments from parents, advocates and celebrities who slammed DeVos and urged her to rethink the proposal.
Joe Haden, who plays for the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers and works as an ambassador for the Special Olympics, said he was sickened by the cut. "This is so wrong on so many Levels!" he said on Twitter.
Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, called the proposal outrageous. Kasich, who also represented Ohio in the U.S. House, said that when he was on the budget committee, "these types of programs were off limits — for good reason."