WASHINGTON — A Democratic senator’s questions about a proposal to cut money from Special Olympics were a “shameful” and “disgusting” political ploy, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Thursday.
Her remarks came as U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., criticized the proposal to eliminate $18 million in grants for the private nonprofit Special Olympics. Durbin got DeVos to acknowledge that she did not personally authorize the reduction to Special Olympics, which provides popular programs to children and adults with disabilities.
She didn’t say who approved the proposed cut, which is included in her agency’s $64 billion budget proposal.
The back-and-forth happened as DeVos testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on the Education Department’s budget request.
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DeVos said the reduction is one of the many tough decisions her department had to make to cut some $7 billion overall to student and teacher programs, even as she proposed increasing funding for charter schools by $60 million.
“I’ve given a portion of my salary to Special Olympics,” said DeVos, raising her voice as Durbin tried to interrupt her with more questions about the cut. “Let’s not use disabled children in a twisted way for your political narrative. That’s just disgusting and is shameful.”
Durbin responded that proposing to eliminate $18 million out of a $64 billion Education Department budget for something as beloved as Special Olympics “is shameful, too.”
He added that whoever approved the proposed cut should get “a special Olympic gold medal for insensitivity.”
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If it follows trends in recent years, Congress is unlikely to accept the deep cuts to Special Olympics and other programs in the Education Department. For the last three years, the Trump administration has proposed cuts, including those to popular programs, suggesting that they are needed to reduce spending, only to see Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress reject them.
On Wednesday, DeVos’ office suggested media reports were misrepresenting the cut — which set off a firestorm of criticism. At the same time, the office said the elimination of the grant was necessary and the lost funding could be made up by charitable giving.
At Thursday’s Senate hearing, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., said she was disappointed by the proposed cut, along with others to programs for after-school care and students with special need.
“You said this is about tough choices, but at the same time you’re asking money for charter schools,” Murray said to DeVos, a longtime supporter of providing choices to traditional public schools. “This isn’t about tough choices. This is about you prioritizing your agenda over children with special needs.
DeVos said she has always been supportive of children with special needs and to suggest otherwise is wrong.
The Education Department did not immediately respond to a question about how much DeVos donates to Special Olympics, but the New York Times reported last year that DeVos was donating her $199,700 salary to four charities, including Special Olympics, splitting the amount equally.
That would mean she donates just under $50,000 a year from her salary to Special Olympics.
DeVos, a former Michigan Republican Party chairwoman and wealthy Republican donor, also defended the cuts on Tuesday, in testimony before a U.S. House subcommittee.
Follow Todd Spangler on Twitter: @tsspangler