Betsy DeVos' Budget Eliminates the Special Olympics, But That's Just The Beginning

Politics Features Betsy DeVos
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Betsy DeVos' Budget Eliminates the Special Olympics, But That's Just The Beginning

In a congressional hearing Tuesday, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos confirmed her budget cuts all funding for—yes—Special Olympics education.

Remember when Mitt Romney proposed eliminating PBS funding and people went all meme about Big Bird?

The FY2020 Trump budget would also cut other funding for maternal and child health (including people born with disabilities) such as eliminating a $51 million initiative to help the autistic and others with developmental disorders:

The Trump administration has proposed cuts to the Special Olympics both previous years, and has each time asked Congress to reduce education spending dramatically. Yesterday, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee) pointed out the Trump-DeVos education budget also calls for about $2 billion in cuts to Pell Grants, on top of billions in cuts to about 30 other programs, all made by an apparently incompetent/heartless DeVos staff in order to redirect funding to their priorities—such as hikes in executive pay and more money for private school choice programs.

Congress, however, increased federal spending last year for educational programs for students with learning disabilities. So of course Congress has final say on what this budget looks like, and the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives will cut this cut. (Though there’s the outside chance the Trump administration could dig in its heels and force another shutdown.)

Still: The administration for some reason thought it was a good idea to pitch these cuts three years in a row. This year, though, DeVos was called out on the floor, and the news took off.

When Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) asked about the decision to cut the Special Olympics from the education budget, DeVos explained, “We had to make some difficult decisions.” How many kids would be impacted by these cuts? “I don’t know the number of kids.” Pocan informed her the number was 272,000.

Pocan at that point interrupted the education secretary to point out that the proposed budget includes a 26 percent reduction to state grants for special education and millions of dollars in cuts to programs for students who are blind, a 26% cut to state grants for special education, as well as millions of dollars in cuts to—wait for it—programs for students who are blind. (Including for braille textbook manufacturers.)

DeVos, having unintentionally made news for the first time since one of her yachts drifted away, was forced to put out a statement the next day, blaming the media and admitting her budget does what the media said it does.

DeVos herself is the wealthiest member of Trump’s oligarchical cabinet, worth an estimated $1.3 billion, per Forbes. She has ten yachts and two helicopters. One of her yachts is reportedly worth $40 million, which could fund the Special Olympics cuts for two years. Last year, DeVos donated her $200,000 government salary to the Special Olympics, but she could match the cuts to the Special Olympics this year with 1/72 of her personal wealth. She’d still be worth one billion, two hundred ninety-two million doll-hairs.

The Washington Post reported Trump could make up for this cut himself with tax dollars saved from five trips to Mar-a-Lago.

Here’s DeVos last year:


Here are Trump and Vice President Mike Pence six days ago:


Still, DeVos made it clear, even in the face of public shame, that she was dead serious about cutting the program from the government budget: “I think Special Olympics is an awesome organization, one that is well supported by the philanthropic sector as well.”

The insult to Americans with disabilities seems needlessly cruel, until you realize the DOE’s perceived need: Find money to fund private school choice, essentially a racist thinly-veiled effort to overrule Brown v. The Board of Education via executive action.

Yes: The DeVos hearing was—yet again—essentially an exercise in defending the Department’s thinly-veiled bigotry under her watch. The Department made the cuts to the Special Olympics and other programs to fund its priorities, which includes executive pay raises of 15%. DeVos—a devout Christian who has given money to groups that fund conversation therapy—is a big believer in private choice. She indicated she believes the federal government should be able to fund education. Her budget would also allocate $60 million to charter schools.

The basic premise of charter schools is the belief that your zip code shouldn’t dictate your education. Organizations have over the last years begun creating religious charter schools where, say, black parents can send their black children so they don’t have to go to the school in their neighborhood. (This is also, of course, cover for white parents to send their kids to “whiter” schools.) Sounds like a good option if your local school is bad, but the Post has pointed out that charter schools have a failure rate of one in four. Charter schools sap resources from public schools, so rather than sinking money into these programs, the federal government can focus on improving underperforming public schools, which in abandonment they condemn to fail further. (The Special Olympics cuts fund the charter school failure rate—and then some.)

DeVos also plans to eliminate federal guidance on racially discriminatory disciplinary action in schools. When asked about student behavior as connected to race and class, she basically answered that minority students are bad from the get-go, saying, “Prior problem behavior accounts for the recent racial gap in suspensions” and citing a researcher who said, “It’s a liberal fantasy that poverty and race play a role in behavioral issues.”

She also cited a report saying the suspension rates themselves may reflect innate racial discrepancies in behavior. In other words, behavior is a function that emerges early in life, then shows up in the classroom. This obviously isn’t true. Research shows black students are 3.5 times more likely to be suspended as their white counterparts, and whereas white students are referred to the office more frequently for observable and objective offenses (such as smoking or loitering), black students are referred more frequently for subjective offenses (such as showing disrespect, or making too much noise).

And poverty clearly affects behavior. The overwhelming percentage of Americans in poverty are minority groups, because of America’s systemic discriminatory practices based on race. In other words, when controlled for race alone, genetically speaking, as DeVos was, there’s little observed difference in actual behavioral problems. But poverty does seem to affect behavior, and poverty is tied to racial differences. So DeVos is literally proving herself wrong: Black kids aren’t somehow innately predisposed to behavioral issues; the systemic racism that leads to poverty is. Though DeVos punted back to early behavior, she didn’t address where that early behavior might come from, or how schools might address it—how about, say, issuing federal guidance for racially discriminatory disciplinary action?

On the topic of student debt, DeVos also advocated shifting government money to grants for eight-week certificate programs in lieu of more grants to two- or four-year universities, shaping this as a zero-sum false choice: Funding one directly affects funding the other. But we currently fund both—there are Pell grants available not only for four-year programs, but for 15-week programs—and if we prioritize these programs above, say, executive pay and failing charter schools, we can even expand funding for both. And as Rep. DeLauro (chairwoman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee) pointed out, the new budget calls for about $2 billion in cuts to Pell Grants.

But student debt is at an all-time high: $1.5 trillion. The real issue is where kids go to school, how we inform them at a younger age which schools are worth their money, and the incentives to finish—if you don’t get a degree from a meaningful institution, or don’t finish that degree, attendance and loans are sunk costs. Americans who make less money have a harder time staying in college, because they can’t afford it. That includes not just tuition, but living expenses, utilities, groceries, gas, fitting in a day job, etc etc. Non-traditional students who might have peripheral demands—such as a family to take care of—won’t go back to school simply because tuition is free. The have to afford the risk to build their lives around attending. What are we doing for the people who can get in, but who can’t afford to stay? No wonder we have this massive student debt crisis. For low- or middle-income Americans, the only thing worse than not getting a college degree is going, paying, and not finishing.

Of course, DeVos is also one of the most underqualified cabinet members in history. Hers was the first-ever Senate cabinet confirmation to require the Vice President to cast a tie-breaking vote. Ahead of that confirmation hearing, Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman said her lack of qualification was “one of the most important qualifications you could have for this job.” We see how this logic turned out.

Oh: Trump’s budget also plans to cut lots of other necessary spending over the next decade: $1.5 trillion less on Medicaid (giving $1.2 trillion to states in a block-grant program), $25 billion less on Social Security, and $845 billion less on Medicare ($545 billion when you account for re-allocation). The budget would also cut $3.5 billion in the WIC program—rolling 5% cuts could deny food aid to 400,000 women & children per year.

Please read the budget here.