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Trump Plan to Scrap Special Olympics Funding Draws Fierce Reaction

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U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos fired back Wednesday at critics of the Trump administration's proposed budget for the U.S. Department of Education—particularly at those slamming the proposed elimination of about $18 million in funding for Special Olympics as part of some $7 billion in cuts overall. 

"It is unacceptable, shameful and counterproductive that the media and some members of Congress have spun up falsehoods and fully misrepresented the facts," DeVos said in a statement. 

The Trump administration plans to keep fiscal 2020 special education funding at around $13.2 billion, the same as in the previous fiscal year, DeVos noted. The budget also proposes spending nearly $226 million for grants to support teacher preparation, research and technical assistance for special education. 

But Special Olympics has substantial support in the private sector, DeVos said. 

"I love its work, and I have personally supported its mission," she said. "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."

The controversy over Special Olympics funding began after DeVos made the first of two planned trips to Capitol Hill to answer lawmakers' questions about the budget proposal. The budget proposal would reduce the Education Department's funding by about 10 percent. But the budget has to go through Congress first, and lawmakers have not supported previous Trump administration attempts to cut federal education spending.

Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, posted a clip of him pressing DeVos about Special Olympics, which would be one of 29 programs eliminated in the budget proposal.

"Do you know how many kids are going to be affected by that cut?" Pocan asked. 

"Let me just say again, we had to make some difficult decisions with this budget," DeVos said, before Pocan jumped in to say that 272,000 children are affected. 

"I think the Special Olympics is an awesome organization, one that is well supported by the philanthropic sector as well," DeVos said. 

Pocan's tweet, along with others that suggested the cuts are already in place, took off on Twitter in the hours after her testimony. But here's a few things to keep in mind: 

  • The president's proposed budget is just that—a proposal. Congress makes the decision on whether the accept the president's recommendations on specific programs in the federal budget. 
  • This isn't the first time that the Trump administration has proposed cutting federal funding for the Special Olympics. A similar cut was proposed in fiscal 2019, and instead, Congress—with both chambers then in control of Republicans—actually ended up giving the program a few million more dollars, bringing it to its current funding level. 
  • Special Olympics, which fosters sports training and competition for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, receives substantial support from the federal government. But that's not where most of the program's money comes from. In a 2018 audit, Special Olympics and its affiliates listed nearly $150 million in "revenues, gains, and other support," of which about 10 percent came from the federal government. 

The Trump administration's proposed budget does give a clear idea of its priorities, but there's a long way to go before any program cuts or increases are made final. 

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on budget on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 26, 2019.—Andrew Harnik/AP

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