Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is facing backlash over a proposal to cut federal funding to the Special Olympics. She said the organization should be supported through philanthropy.
DeVos became a target Wednesday after Democrats slammed her plan to remove the group’s funding as part of $7 billion in budget cuts for next year. The Special Olympics received $17.6 million from the Education Department this year, roughly 10 percent of its overall revenue.
President of Special Olympics Indiana Jeff Mohler is hoping this proposal doesn’t gain any traction.
“We certainly understand that this is just the first step in a long process to have an approved budget,“ he said. “So we’re still very hopeful the funding will be a part of the budget.“
Mohler explained that the federal funding is for Special Olympics’ Unified Champion Schools program, which sends anti-bullying messaging to schools. It creates disability and inclusion awareness campaigns. It also funds unified sports, where athletes with and without disabilities team up to play together.
Mohler says the Unified Schools program is available in more than 600 Indiana schools. If DeVos‘ proposal passes the state will lose $250,000.
Indiana’s Unified program will survive without federal funding which supports half of it. Mohler said they can find the rest elsewhere, but losing the federal help will keep their Unified program growing as fast and widespread as they’d like it to. They have a vision to grow the program from 610 to 1,000 Indiana schools in the next 4 years.
In a statement responding to nationwide criticism, DeVos said she “loves“ the organization’s work and has “personally supported its mission.“ But she also noted that it’s a private nonprofit that raises $100 million a year on its own. Ultimately, she argued, her agency can’t afford to continue backing it.
“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. “Given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.“
Mohler understands her point, but disagrees.
“We’re having an impact on public and private schools across the state of Indiana and we’re helping schools get better and create an inclusive culture within their buildings and this funding allows us to grow and expand at a faster rate than just charitable donations would,“ he said. “We certainly believe in Special Olympics that we’re using taxpayer dollars effectively and have a tremendous impact to improve schools.“
Celebrities, politicians and activists have taken to Devos to change her mind.
House Democrats grilled DeVos at a budget hearing Tuesday, asking how she could cut the group’s funding while calling for a $60 million increase in charter school funding.
DeVos‘ budget places the Special Olympics funding among 29 programs up for elimination in 2020, arguing that they have achieved their purpose or that they are ineffective, don’t meet national needs or are better funded from other sources.
The proposal separately calls for $13.2 billion in federal grants awarded to states for special education, the same amount that was granted for this year.