Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 July 2019

Betsy DeVos faces backlash over proposed Special Olympics funding cuts

Education Secretary called to testify on budget just days after the World Games closed in Abu Dhabi

US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee. EPA
US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies Subcommittee. EPA

US Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is facing growing criticism after submitting a draft budget that would eliminate government funding for the Special Olympics.

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is among the politicians being praised for vowing to fight the bill.

Ms Ocasio-Cortez on Thursday took to Twitter to denounce the plan: “I see Betsy DeVos and the GOP are doubling down on their Anti-Everybody agenda by working to cut Fed funding for the Special Olympics”.

On March 11 the Department of Education made their budget for the coming fiscal year public. The proposal includes annual savings of $6.7 billion with cuts to several areas of special needs education.

The cuts will end 29 programmes – among them the Special Olympics, which will lose its $17.6 million in funding, roughly 10 per cent of its overall budget.

President Trump, who famously mocked a disabled reporter during his campaign trail in 2016 is also proposing cuts to some after-school grants and a $13 million drop in contributions to Gallaudet University, a federally chartered school for the deaf.

Founded in 1968, the Special Olympics provides children and adults with intellectual disabilities the chance to take part in training and competitions. Over five million athletes have competed in the Special Olympics World Games over its history, coming from over 170 countries.

Criticism of Ms DeVos’s proposal comes just days after the closing ceremony of the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi on March 21. The largest competition to date and the first in the Middle East and North Africa, 7,000 athletes from around the world competed in 24 disciplines.

"We had to make some difficult decisions with this budget," Ms DeVos told a House appropriations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday. When asked if she knew how many American children would be impacted by the cuts, Ms Devos replied that she did not.

The Unified Schools programme allows some 272,000 people to participate in Unified Sports. According to the Special Olympics, these opportunities would not be available without US funding.

“I’m going to school to be a SPED (special education) teacher and with so many budget cuts, how do they expect children of all types to grow and thrive,” one Twitter user said of the minister’s proposal.

Ms DeVos on Wednesday defended the budget. The secretary said the reaction had been “unacceptable, shameful and counterproductive”.

The president's budget, she added, “supports our nation's 7 million students with disabilities through a $13.2 billion request for IDEA funding [a federal grant for the education of children with disabilities] …The budget also requests an additional $225.6 million for competitively awarded grants to support teacher preparation, research and technical assistance to support students with disabilities.”

The Trump administration tried to eliminate Special Olympics funding in its previous budget proposal but Congress ultimately increased funding for the group. Lawmakers indicated that the latest attempt will also fail.

“The good news?” Ms Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. “You elected a House Dem majority, so we can halt it”.

As the Democratic party holds a majority in the lower House of Representatives, if the party as a whole opposes the cuts then the budget will be unlikely to move to the Republican-controlled Senate for the next stage.

Athletes, celebrities and politicians joined Ms Ocasio-Cortez in showing their support for the organisation. “Betsy DeVos going after Special Olympics is evil,” American actor and deaf activist Nyle DiMarco tweeted on Tuesday.

Special Olympics Chairman Dr Timothy P. Shriver issued a statement thanking people for the support, including from “many members of Congress – both Republicans and Democrats”.

But, Mr Shriver added that the Special Olympics has a long history and is not reliant on US funding to continue.

“…let me be clear. The traditional Special Olympics programme funded by philanthropy…has over 50 years been built on the backs of volunteers and philanthropists. This is not the work being funded by the United States Department of Education.”

Updated: March 28, 2019 08:05 PM

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