Congress

Trump administration’s Special Olympics cuts never had a chance

Senate’s top Education appropriator was at Special Olympics in Abu Dhabi last week

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has been under pressure over an administration proposal to cut funding for the Special Olympics. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The Trump administration’s proposal to cut funding for the Special Olympics will not happen.

In reality, the cuts never had a chance, even before Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Tuesday faced questions and criticism from a House Appropriations subcommittee about her department’s fiscal 2020 budget request to cut all funding from the organization.

The leader of the official U.S. delegation to the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games, which wrapped up last week in Abu Dhabi, was none other than Missouri Republican Sen. Roy Blunt.

Blunt is the chairman of the Labor-HHS-Education subcommittee of Appropriations, which has jurisdiction over the Education Department budget and is set to hear testimony from DeVos on Thursday morning.

“I’m a longtime supporter of Special Olympics and proud that Missouri is home to the largest Special Olympics training facility in the world. 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,” Blunt said in a statement. “Our Department of Education appropriations bill will not cut funding for the program.”

Blunt has supported the Special Olympics throughout his career in the House and Senate, and he is planning to highlight the federal support for the programming in his opening statement on Thursday, according to an excerpt provided by his office.

“The limited funding this subcommittee provides for Special Olympics leverages private resources to help schools implement comprehensive policies to transform school climates and ensure that students with disabilities are fully welcomed and included in student-life. This funding has directly impacted the lives of thousands of students both with and without intellectual disabilities,” he is expected to say. “It also provides a model for other schools and districts to support this kind of work without direct federal funding.”

In response to the criticism, DeVos in a statement Wednesday said the Trump administration’s fiscal 2020 budget request includes money for students with disabilities and explained why the Special Olympics shouldn’t get federal funding.  

“The Special Olympics is not a federal program. It’s a private organization. ... 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. “But given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”

Tim Shriver, Special Olympics chairman, said Wednesday that the organization had a complete disagreement with the Trump administration about the importance of the games.

“Young people who are fighting intolerance, who want to have programs in their schools that allow them to meet their peers, who have differences, who want to overcome the fear of difference and replace it with the choice of inclusion,” Shriver said on MSNBC. “That’s what the Special Olympics movement is doing today in schools. And so while the philanthropic traditions we have of volunteerism and private support are important, we’re now in a new ball game of trying to educate young people about the importance of an inclusive mindset to the future of the country.”

The Department of Education’s ill-fated proposal to eliminate funding for the Special Olympics isn’t new.

The request for Congress to eliminate the so-called “earmark” for the Special Olympics funding was included in its fiscal 2018 and fiscal 2019 budget requests.

In its first proposals, the Trump administration asked lawmakers to eliminate $10.1 million for Special Olympics education programs.

One year later, in its fiscal 2019 budget request, the department asked Congress to eliminate $12.6 million in funding for the same program. This year’s budget request again proposed eliminating $17.6 million for the very same line item.

Despite concerns from advocates about the budget proposal, Congress has made its support for funding for the program pretty clear.

Rep. Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat who was among the House appropriators pressing DeVos over the Special Olympics cut proposal on Tuesday, signaled the House would not accept the effort to slash federal funding.

“To take money away from Special Olympics, at the same time Betsy DeVos has a 15 percent increase in executive salary pays in her budget, makes no sense whatsoever. So I’m glad we were able to highlight this. We’ll do everything we can to change this,” he said Wednesday, appearing with Shriver on MSNBC. “But this is something that Betsy DeVos clearly is out of touch on.”

With Blunt holding the Senate subcommittee gavel, funding has jumped from $7.6 million in fiscal 2015 to $17.6 million in the current fiscal year. The Trump funding request is a clear case of the administration proposing and the Appropriations Committee disposing.

Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.

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