In her budget proposal for 2020, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos moved to cut all federal funding for the Special Olympics, the program that provides opportunities for disabled athletes to compete and train year-round.
The proposed $17.6 million cut to the Special Olympics comes as a small but very public example of the Trump administration’s slashing of the Education Department budget. The administration intends to cut around $8.5 billion, or about 12 percent, of the current budget — although a budget request can be more of a wish list than an actionable plan.
“We had to make some difficult decisions,” DeVos said in front of the House Appropriations subcommittee on education. As the Detroit Free Press explains, DeVos’s 2020 plan “calls for eliminating billions in grants to improve student achievement by reducing class sizes and funding professional development for teachers as well as cutting funds dedicated to increasing the use of technology in schools and improving school conditions.” In addition, the budget would cut special-education grants to states by 26 percent, and take funding away from programs benefiting deaf and blind students.
In their stead, DeVos proposed that the ED fund her pet policy of charter schools to the tune of $60 million, and establish a massive tax credit for companies that donate to scholarship funds for private schools. The $5 billion tax credit called Education Freedom Scholarships allows individuals and corporate donors to give to organizations that provide private-school scholarships; in exchange for their gifts, the donors would receive a dollar-for-dollar tax credit. Like many charter programs DeVos has vouched for in the past, the donation system would hurt public schools by pulling funding away from them and shooing it toward privately run institutions.
DeVos’s appearance in front of the education subcommittee this week was the first time she had appeared in the House since Democrats gained control of the chamber in the 2018 midterms. It was probably DeVos’s roughest string of public statements since her appointment hearings in 2017, when she said that guns might have a place in rural schools “to protect [students] from potential grizzlies.”
“I still can’t understand why you would go after disabled children in your budget,” Representative Barbara Lee told DeVos. “It’s appalling.” The chair of the subcommittee, Rosa DeLauro, asked, “How can you support this budget? I mean that genuinely.” After addressing a report released this week from the Network for Public Education, which stated that the federal government has spent nearly $1 billion on charter schools that never opened or were forced to close because of mismanagement, Representative Mark Pocan asked DeVos about the plan to eliminate Special Olympics funding:
Pocan: “Do you know how many kids are going to be affected by that cut?”
DeVos: “We had to make some difficult decisions with this budget,” she answered. “I don’t know the number of kids.”
Pocan: “It’s 272,000 kids.”
DeVos added that she thinks the Special Olympics is an “awesome organization,” but already “well-supported by the philanthropic sector,” including a quarter of DeVos’s $199,700 salary, which she donated to the nonprofit last year. According to the Special Olympics’ 2017 financial statement, the organization received around 10 percent of its funding from federal grants.
This isn’t the first time DeVos has proposed a complete drop of federal funding for the Special Olympics — she has attempted to cut the program from every budget of the Trump administration. In a 2017 profile of the secretary of Education, New York’s Lisa Miller wrote that, on Valentine’s Day of that year, DeVos spoke at a dinner where Special Olympics athletes met with their representatives in Congress. DeVos called the organization “an important program that promotes leadership and empowers students to be agents of change,” and stayed around after her speech to visit with the athletes and their families. But a month later, come budget time, Special Olympics chairman Tim Shriver said that they “were given no advance notice that we were going to be eliminated from the president’s budget.” After two years of attempting to cut their federal funding, at least the Special Olympics had a guess it was coming this year.