Trump says "Special Olympics will be funded" amid outrage over budget cuts proposed by Betsy DeVos

"The federal government cannot fund every worthy program," the secretary of education had insisted on Wednesday

Published March 28, 2019 5:12PM (EDT)

 (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

President Donald Trump announced "the Special Olympics will be funded" by his administration following a rare public break from key Republican legislators over proposed cuts to education programs.

"I have overriden my people," the president told reporters Thursday. "I am funding the Special Olympics."

Ahead of Trump's reversal, some GOP lawmakers broke from the administration, speaking out against Education Secretary Betsy DeVos after she defended the administration's proposals to cut at least $7 billion in programming, including slashing all $18 million in federal funding for the Special Olympics, during an appearance Tuesday in front of the House Appropriations subcommittee on education.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., the chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees spending by the Department of Education, said Wednesday his panel would not slash Special Olympics funding. Blunt has supported the Special Olympics throughout his tenure in Congress. He is also the leader of the official U.S. delegation to the 2019 Special Olympics World Summer Games, which wrapped up last week in Abu Dhabi, and sponsored "The Special Olympics Sport Empowerment Act" in 2004 to authorize federal support for the program.

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

Blunt added Thursday that Special Olympics funding has "directly impacted the lives of thousands of students both with and without intellectual disabilities. It also provides a model for other schools and districts to support this kind of work without direct federal funding."

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters Thursday that he opposed proposed cuts to the Special Olympics. "I fully support Special Olympics," McCarthy said during a press conference.

John Kasich, the former governor of Ohio and a 2016 Republican presidential candidate, called the proposal to eliminate Special Olympics funding "outrageous." "When I was chair of the House Budget [Committee], we worked to balance the budget & these types of programs were off limits — for good reason. Hope [leaders] in DC stop this ridiculous proposal," the Ohio Republican tweeted on Tuesday.

DeVos faced mounting backlash after she defended the proposal to eliminate Special Olympics funding Tuesday. In a statement issued Wednesday, DeVos stated that while she "loves" the organization's work and has "personally supported its mission," the private nonprofit is "able to raise more than $100 million every year" on its own.

"There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don't get a dime of federal grant money," she continued. "But given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations."

She also said Trump's budget proposal reflects a commitment to the nation's "7 million students with disabilities through a $13.2 billion request" for special education funding — "the same funding level appropriated by Congress." Her proposed 2020 budget would slash overall funding for the Education Department by 12 percent, and has a slim chance of being approved by the Democratic-controlled House.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., called DeVos' proposed budget cut "appalling" at the hearing Tuesday. "Once again, I still can't understand why you would go after disabled children in your budget," she said. "You've zeroed that out. It's appalling."

"How can you support this budget? I mean that genuinely," Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., the chair of the subcommittee asked.

"The three education budgets from this administration have proposed the largest cuts to education funding in four decades. That's since the department was created in 1979," DeLauro said. "Madam Secretary, I have to say — and maybe it's offensive — shame on you."

The Special Olympics is the world's largest sports organization for children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities. It was founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968 and works with more than five million athletes across 174 countries, according to the organization's website. The nonprofit receives some funding from the U.S. government but also has partnerships with several private companies, including Coca Cola, Microsoft, Bank of America and United Airlines.

By Shira Tarlo

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