Sometime early last week, Special Olympics leaders heard the Trump administration’s 2020 proposal was going to call for cutting $17.6 million in federal grants to the organization.
Nobody was terribly alarmed.
The same funding cut was proposed in the past two Education Department budget requests under Secretary Betsy DeVos, but Congress approved the grants anyway, explained Tara Baker, a spokesperson for Special Olympics North America.
“We weren’t overly concerned by it,” she said late Thursday morning.
And sure enough, by Thursday afternoon, after two days of intense media coverage of the Special Olympics federal earmark, President Donald Trump had jettisoned the controversial proposal, saying he wanted to continue to send taxpayer money to the organization that advocates for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. DeVos said she supported the change and had pushed Trump to make it.
But why does Special Olympics, a private nonprofit, get federal money, anyway? And what is it used for?
And why did this story attract so much attention when $17.6 million is just a fraction of the $6.7 billion cut that DeVos proposed for the Education Department – a 10 percent reduction from current spending?
What federal money does for Special Olympics
Special Olympics posted almost $149 million in revenue in 2017, with $15 million – or about 10 percent – coming from federal grants, according to its financials.
The federal earmark supports work Special Olympics has been doing in schools for more than 10 years to make sports teams and other aspects of student life more inclusive to students with disabilities. That program is called Unified Champion Schools.
The organization doesn’t use that federal money for its flagship sports programs that happen outside of school, nor the competitions it hosts, like the just-finished Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi this month.
Why Special Olympics gets federal funding
Baker said Special Olympics receives federal money because it supports inclusion, which is important to everyone.
Plus, Special Olympics has donors and lobbyists who are well-connected to members of Congress.
But Special Olympics has much older political ties, according to its published history. It was developed by Eunice Shriver, sister of former President John F. Kennedy.
Starting in the late 1950s, Shriver and her husband, Sargent Shriver, started investigating how to help children and adults with intellectual disabilities. They recruited researchers and funded awareness efforts and convinced JFK to make it a national priority when he was elected president in 1960.
Eunice Shriver opened a summer camp for people with intellectual disabilities in 1962, which became the seed for the kind of athletic games that Special Olympics is known for today. That was the same year that Shriver revealed publicly that she and the president had a sister with an intellectual disability.
Kennedy later signed legislation that committed the government to pay for research on intellectual disabilities. Even after Kennedy’s assassination, Shriver and a growing team of researchers and supporters, through the family foundation, continued paying for research, camps and sports programs.
Special Olympics Inc. was created in 1968. Eunice Shriver’s son, Tim Shriver, now runs the organization.
Who made the proposal to cut Special Olympics funding?
Nobody will say publicly.
On Thursday in a Senate subcommittee hearing, DeVos said she didn’t initiate it, but she supported the cut because the private organization could raise its own money.
Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, from Illinois, shot back that someone should be held accountable for the “bad decision.”
By early Thursday evening, DeVos had changed her mind.
Why is Special Olympics getting so much attention now, when this cut was proposed in previous years?
Hello, social media.
When DeVos testified about the 2020 budget proposal at a House subcommittee Tuesday, Rep. Barbara Lee, a Democrat from California, asked her why she would “go after disabled children in her budget.” Then Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, asked DeVos if she knew how many students the Special Olympics cut would affect, then added that it would be “272,000 kids” who are involved in the Unified Champion Schools.
Both exchanges were replayed widely on social media and news networks. What was often overlooked: the fact that these proposals would still have to pass Congress and weren’t final. And that the proposal affected a small percentage of Special Olympics’ budget.
Education Department spokeswoman Liz Hill said Thursday that the same cut to Special Olympics was proposed in the 2009 department budget, long before Trump and DeVos.
It didn’t make news then, either.
Opinion: Betsy DeVos doesn’t get why Special Olympics matter
What about the other cuts proposed in the 2020 federal education budget?
None are getting Olympic-level attention, even though they affect many more children.
DeVos has once again proposed cutting $1.2 billion for after-school programs, which would affect 1.7 million children and families, according to the advocacy group Afterschool Alliance. Research behind those programs shows they spur a modest increase in test scores.
Another big area of proposed cuts: grants for academic enrichment, at $1.2 billion.
What’s the likelihood of Congress approving those?
These same cuts were proposed in the previous Education Department budgets under Trump, and they didn’t pass the Republican-controlled Congress. Now that the Democrats control the House, the education budget is even more unlikely to pass as written.
Education coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input.