Education Secretary Betsy DeVos faced scathing criticism this week over a budget proposal that calls for eliminating funding for the Special Olympics, as members of Congress voiced opposition at a hearing that drew widespread attention, stoking a strong defense of the organization across the internet.
“I still can’t understand why you would go after disabled children in your budget,” Representative Barbara Lee, Democrat of California, told Ms. DeVos during the hearing on Tuesday, held by a House subcommittee. “You zero that out. It’s appalling.”
The $17.6 million in proposed cuts to the Special Olympics comes as the Education Department faces an overall budget reduction of 10 percent. President Trump’s budget for next year proposed cutting funding to education for the third year in a row, as he places a priority on the military, as well as the construction of a wall along the border with Mexico.
As Ms. DeVos’s exchange with skeptical House Democrats took off online, the proposal drew condemnation from across the political spectrum. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Democratic presidential candidate, called the proposed cuts “unbelievable.” John Kasich, the former governor of Ohio and a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, said they were “outrageous.”
Derek Schottle, an athlete with special needs who dreams of competing on a global stage told The Washington Post he was “ praying for the Special Olympics.”
But education and political experts quickly cautioned that the proposal was not set in stone. And by Wednesday, Ms. DeVos had issued a statement addressing the controversy. Ms. DeVos defended the plan, saying that while she personally supported the mission of the Special Olympics, the federal government could not fund every worthy nonprofit organization.
Here is a quick overview of what you need to know about Ms. DeVos’s budget and her position on the Special Olympics.
Did the Trump administration just eliminate funding for the Special Olympics?
No. The cuts were recommended earlier this month as part of Mr. Trump’s overall budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year, but they have not gone into effect and still require approval from Congress.
The president sent Congress a record $4.75 trillion budget plan, which calls for increased military spending and sharp cuts to domestic programs like education. The budget for the Education Department was set at $64 billion — about $7 billion less than in 2019.
The Education Department did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.
In its proposal on how to spend that money, the Education Department suggested eliminating 29 programs that have “achieved their original purpose, duplicate other programs, are narrowly focused, or are unable to demonstrate effectiveness,” according to budget documents.
The Special Olympics would be “better supported with other Federal, State, local, or private funds,” the proposal said.
Is the plan to cut the nonprofit’s funding likely to be approved?
Congress has repeatedly rejected efforts to reduce the Education Department’s spending, including in recent years when Republicans controlled both chambers.
Last year, when Mr. Trump proposed reducing funding for education, lawmakers instead increased funding for the department.
Mr. Trump’s budget is likely to face significant Democratic opposition this year, with Democrats in control of the House. Democratic leaders in both chambers quickly pronounced the budget dead on arrival after it was proposed this month.
What did Betsy DeVos say about the Special Olympics?
During her exchange with House representatives on Tuesday, Ms. DeVos defended her budget’s overall approach, but faced sharp questions from some representatives, including Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, who said that he had two nephews with autism.
“Do you know how many kids are going to be affected by that cut, Madame Secretary?” Mr. Pocan asked.
“We had to make some difficult decisions with this budget,” Ms. DeVos replied, acknowledging that she was not sure the exact number of children effected by the proposed funding cuts to the Special Olympics.
Mr. Pocan shot back that he would answer his own question for her: “It’s 272,000 kids.”
“I think Special Olympics is an awesome organization,” Ms. DeVos said, “one that is well supported by the philanthropic sector as well.”
In her statement on Wednesday, Ms. DeVos said it was “unacceptable, shameful and counterproductive” that the media and some members of Congress had “spun up falsehoods and fully misrepresented the facts.”
“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.
But the Special Olympics is a private organization — not a federal program — that raises millions each year, according to her statement. “Given our current budget realities,” she said, “the federal government cannot fund every worth program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”
A spokesman for the Special Olympics did not respond to a request for comment.
Did Ms. DeVos donate part of her salary to the Special Olympics?
Ms. DeVos, a billionaire who comes from a politically powerful and wealthy Michigan family, pledged not to accept her government paychecks and got the approval to give away her $199,700 salary last year.
She chose four organizations and called them to tell them they would evenly split the money. The Special Olympics was one of them.
In her statement, Ms. DeVos said she had strong admiration for the Special Olympics. “I love its work,” she said,” and I have personally supported its mission.”