Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, arguably the most consistently dragged member of President Trump's cabinet, has stepped in it again, this time with a budget plan that calls for zeroing out $17.6 million in funding for the Special Olympics, which organizes athletic training and competitions for intellectually disabled children and adults.
That reduction comes in the context of an Education budget that asks for 10 percent less than what it was given in fiscal 2019, a rare moment of parsimony for a government that has amassed $22 trillion in debt and set a record in February for posting the single-biggest monthly deficit in history. DeVos's budget for 2020 requests $64 billion, down from about $71 billion this year.
Needless to say, DeVos is being roasted like a chestnut on an open fire, as if she were cutting educational resources for intellectually disabled students (in fact, the budget allocates over $32 billion for "high-need students," which includes intellectually disabled students). Rep. Joseph Kennedy III (D–Mass.) called DeVos's plan "cruel," "misguided," and "outrageous."
"It's cruel, it's misguided and it's outrageous," says @RepJoeKennedy, whose great aunt founded the Special Olympics, as Education Sec. Betsy DeVos defended her proposed cuts to the organization. https://t.co/HKk4NwFJX6 pic.twitter.com/H0qYziwmly
— New Day (@NewDay) March 28, 2019
Kennedy was joined in his sentiments by Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican from Missouri, who insisted that no cuts would ever be made to the Special Olympics while he's on the Appropriations Subcommittee:
NEW: In stmt, Sen @RoyBlunt, who chairs the Approps Subcmte which sets funding levels for Dept of Education, says of cuts to Special Olympics in Trump budget: "Our Department of Education appropriations bill will not cut funding for the program." pic.twitter.com/MIXHyUchPk
— Frank Thorp V (@frankthorp) March 27, 2019
The relevant question, of course, isn't whether the Special Olympics does good work. It's whether it should be funded by the federal government. The short answer is no, as this sort of activity, however uplifting, is not a core function of government. Indeed, even if the federal government were flush with cash, it shouldn't fund the Special Olympics—or many other things it currently funds. President Trump has put together a budget that asks for a record-high $4.75 trillion, so I can understand why Special Olympics advocates feel like their relatively small slice of the pie is being unfairly targeted. But the plain truth is that government cannot and should not pay for everything that somebody wants. Our leaders need to be bringing year-over-year cuts to every aspect of the federal government the way that DeVos is doing at Education. As DeVos wrote in response to her critics:
There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don't get a dime of federal grant money. But given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.
This isn't the first year that DeVos called for cuts to the Special Olympics and there is very little reason to believe the reductions will go through. But even if they did, the organization and its beneficiaries would still be in excellent shape. Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the Special Olympics is a 501(c)3 nonprofit, meaning that deductions to it are tax deductible. According to its 2017 financials (the most-recent available on the web), the organization had total revenues of about $149 million, including $15.5 million in federal grants. It's not a stretch to assume that if federal funding disappears, the resulting outcry would lead to record donations.
This sort of flap is political theater at its most transparent and unhelpful by diverting attention from more important topics. There are serious questions to be asking about the size, scope, and spending of the federal Department of Education and whether it should even exist. It was established in 1979, and Ronald Reagan campaigned on a promise to kill it if he took the White House. Not only didn't he kill it, he expanded its budget throughout his presidency. Yet student achievement, the most-basic measure of educational productivity, has not improved since the department was created and began effectively controlling more and more aspects of the K-12 curriculum.
UPDATED (4:35 P.M.): Kathryn Watson of CBS Digital reports that President Trump has announced that his administration will in fact fund the Special Olympics:
!! TRUMP: "I have overridden my people, we're funding the special Olympics"
— Kathryn Watson (@kathrynw5) March 28, 2019