In reversal, Trump says Special Olympics 'will be funded'

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News
President Donald Trump talks with reporters before boarding Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Thursday, March 28, 2019, for the short trip to Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. Trump is traveling to Michigan to speak at a rally before spending the weekend at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.

Washington — President Donald Trump on Thursday reversed course on his administration's proposal to eliminate $17.6 million in federal grant funding for the Special Olympics. 

"The Special Olympics will be funded. I just told my people," Trump told reporters as he departed the White House for a Michigan rally, claiming he'd learned about the proposal Thursday morning.

"I want to fund the Special Olympics. And I just authorized a funding of the Special Olympics. I've been to the Special Olympics. I think it's incredible."

The reversal came after an outcry in recent days over Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her department's plan to end funding for the Special Olympics as part of $7 billion in budget cuts for next year.

DeVos welcomed the president's position, indicating that she had privately fought to keep funding for Special Olympics in the budget.

“I am pleased and grateful the president and I see eye-to-eye on this issue and that he has decided to fund our Special Olympics grant," she said in a late Thursday afternoon statement. "This is funding I have fought for behind the scenes over the last several years.”

Earlier Thursday, the school choice advocate from the Grand Rapids area had continued to defend the budget plan at a Senate hearing. DeVos said she has personally supported the organization but repeated that the department had to make "difficult" decisions.

"You said this is about tough choices, but you are also asking at the same time for more money for charter schools when you are having trouble spending the increase Congress appropriated for that last year," said Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees education. 

"This is not about tough choices. This is about you prioritizing your agenda over children with special needs."

Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, pressed DeVos about whether she personally approved the elimination of the funding for Special Olympics. 

"No, I didn't personally get involved in that," DeVos replied.  

"I want to tell you, whoever came up with that idea at (the White House Office of Budget and Management) gets a special Olympic gold medal for insensitivity," Durbin interjected. 

"To think we can't spend $18 million for this dramatically successful venture, which incidentally started in Chicago, Illinois, and now reaches countries all across the world — millions of young people with disabilities." 

DeVos said she "loves" Special Olympics and has donated a portion of her salary to the organization. As education secretary, she is paid $199,700 a year.

"I hope all this debate encourages lots of private contributions to Special Olympics. Let's not use disabled children in a twisted way for your political narrative. That is just disgusting, and it's shameful," DeVos told Durbin.

Durbin responded: "Eliminating $18 million out of a $70 or $80 billion budget I think is shameful, too. I'm not twisting it. I asked you to answer yes or no, and you said you did not personally approve this." 

DeVos also pushed back on Murray's comments from the senator's opening statement.

"You attacked and questioned my personal motives and my priorities," DeVos said. 

"I just want to be clear where my heart is. My heart is with all students and for their futures. I want every single student to have opportunity." 

Democrats aren't alone in opposition to the reduction.

Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt, who chairs the Appropriations panel, said Wednesday he would reject the department's proposed cuts to Special Olympics, noting he had just returned from the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi. 

"I’m a longtime supporter of the Special Olympics and proud that Missouri is home to the largest Special Olympics training facility in the world," Blunt said in a statement.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaks during a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on budget on Capitol Hill in Washington.

"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 underscored the importance of his subcommittee's "limited" funding to the Special Olympics in his prepared testimony Thursday, saying it "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," he added.

U.S. Rep. Paul Mitchell, a Republican representing Michigan's Thumb, on Thursday wrote to House appropriators urging them to maintain funding for Special Olympics. 

"To me, zeroing out funding for the Special Olympics is the wrong way to handle our budget," Mitchel said in an interview. 

"These things happen. I spoke up because it came to my attention and, to be honest, I got a call on the home front from my spouse saying, 'OK, what is this? What are you people doing?' And it's fair."

DeVos on Wednesday had pushed back against the criticism, accusing the media and lawmakers of "misrepresenting the facts." 

She noted her budget includes $13.2 billion in funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) for states to spend on students with disabilities. 

She stressed the Special Olympics is not a federal program but a private entity that is widely supported by the philanthropic sector. 

“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 in her Wednesday statement.

“Given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”

Blunt noted Thursday that DeVos' budget proposal wasn't that different than last year's and predicted the committee's work would not be that different this round.

Congress, on the whole, rejected much of DeVos' proposed budget last year, including $12 million in cuts to Special Olympics programs. 

The group's 2017 financial report, the most recent posted online, says the Special Olympics received $148 million in revenue that year, including $15.5 million from federal grants that represented about 12 percent of the organization's funding.