This week, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos found herself at the center of a firestorm after Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) questioned her about a budget that proposed eliminating federal funding for the Special Olympics in a now-viral moment.
“It’s 272,000 kids that are affected,” he told her.
The moment blew up, even though the administration’s budget was released weeks ago and the cut was previously proposed twice without success. DeVos’ response drove an entire news cycle, though there was no indication the proposed budget would ever make it through Congress.
But advocates say the focus on the Special Olympics obscures the much deeper cuts DeVos is trying to make to other areas, even if it is an important program. Amid all the controversy, other at-risk programs have been overlooked ― even if those cuts are similarly unlikely to pass.
“So many people don’t understand there are so many programs that impact kids with disabilities,” said Curtis Decker, the executive director of the National Disability Rights Network. “Just because they don’t have ‘disability’ in their name doesn’t mean the cuts being proposed in a variety of program aren’t serious.”
The Education Department’s proposed budget would eliminate 29 education programs, including a program that operates after-school programs for low-income kids, one that provides professional development for teachers and one that helps provide mental health services.
These programs are essential to kids with disabilities, according to advocates.
“This budget is pretty anti-disability,” said Decker.
Other areas have avoided proposed cuts. Grants that directly fund special education services are not being targeted. The administration is proposing that those funding levels remain flat.
Still, advocates say current funding for such grants isn’t nearly enough.
“It does feel like a reduction as districts identify more and more kids who have special needs,” said Bob Farrace, a spokesman for the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
Instead, DeVos has prioritized other areas, like charter schools and private-school vouchers. The proposed budget calls for tens of millions of dollars more to support charter schools and an increase in funding for a school voucher program in the District of Columbia.
It aims to cut over $7 billion from the Department of Education overall.
A focus on school choice ― at the expense of traditional public schools ― is an attack on students with disabilities, Decker said.
“When you start going after public education, this is the major place kids with disabilities go. That’s where the protections are. That’s where the trained teachers are. That’s where there’s a familiarity of the rights of kids with disabilities,” he said.
The Trump administration’s original proposal aimed to cut $17.6 million from the Special Olympics, about 10 percent of the organization’s funding. But by Thursday, President Donald Trump said his administration would not make that cut, though it was proposed in his administration’s budget and Congress makes the ultimate decision about funding.
DeVos echoed support for his decision, saying in a statement that it was “funding I have fought for behind-the-scenes over the last several years.”
But during hearings before the Senate and House this week, she repeatedly defended eliminating federal funding for the Special Olympics, using the national deficit as justification.
“We had to make some difficult decisions with this budget,” DeVos told a House subcommittee on Tuesday.
In a statement on Wednesday, she noted that the program is mostly privately funded.
“The Special Olympics is not a federal program. It’s a private organization. I love its work, and I have personally supported its mission,” she said in that statement. “Given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”
Advocates see the proposed federal defunding of the Special Olympics as symbolic of the administration’s larger disdain for people with disabilities, even if it accounts for a relatively small share of the program’s budget.
“The Special Olympics cut gained a lot of prominence in large part because it’s a tangible expression of what we believe is a very cruel budget proposal,” said Farrace. “It’s a very easy shorthand.”