Who could blame Education Secretary Betsy DeVos if she was surprised by the public bashing she took this week for proposing to cut millions of dollars in special education funding, including to Special Olympics?

The Trump administration’s proposed Education Department budget for 2020 includes the cuts — but earlier budgets also sought to zero out Special Olympics, and there was far less public reaction then. What’s more, Congress refused to do it, and a key lawmaker said Congress will refuse to do it in the 2020 budget.

Still, the proposed elimination of Special Olympics funding — $17.6 million — along with more than $20 million in cuts to programs for blind and deaf students proved to be especially contentious when lawmakers grilled DeVos on Tuesday.

“I still can’t understand why you would go after disabled children in your budget,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said at a House Appropriations subcommittee meeting. “You zero that out. It’s appalling.”

Social media exploded with criticism, including some tweets that were not accurate. One, for instance, said DeVos had unilaterally wiped out Special Olympics funding; instead, the cut is a budget proposal on which Congress must pass judgment.

Lawmakers and governors jumped in to the discussion to criticize the proposed cuts, including some Republicans, such as former Ohio governor John Kasich and California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D).

That led DeVos to send out a four-paragraph statement defending the Trump administration’s record on funding special education. It said in part:

Make no mistake: we are focused every day on raising expectations and improving outcomes for infants and toddlers, children and youth with disabilities, and are committed to confronting and addressing anything that stands in the way of their success.
The President’s budget reflects that commitment.

The president’s proposed budget for the Education Department also reflects an acknowledged effort by President Trump and DeVos to reduce the federal footprint and cut government agencies. Congress has consistently refused to go along.

For 2020, DeVos has proposed cutting the department’s budget by 10 percent. For the 2019 budget, she had proposed cutting 11 percent (about $7.7 billion), but Congress rejected it and instead provided a record $71.5 billion, $581 million more than the year before. A similar pattern occurred with the 2018 budget: Trump and DeVos sought to cut the department budget, but Congress instead boosted funding by $2.6 billion.

One of the reasons the special education cuts drew fire this week was because DeVos had found money to support her own pet projects. She proposed creating a controversial new federal tax-credit program, which, capped at $5 billion, would allow the use of public money for private and religious schooling. She also proposed adding $60 million to the Charter Schools Program, which funds the creation and expansion of charter schools.

Some critics said they were angered that DeVos found money to support the expansion of alternatives to traditional public school districts, which enroll most U.S. schoolchildren, while cutting special education.

Still, the programs that DeVos proposed to cut in 2020 are not the major source of federal funding for students with disabilities.

The vast majority comes from Part B of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, a federal law designed to support the needs of students with disabilities from ages 3 to 21.

It is important to note that Congress has always left the federal law massively underfunded. Under the IDEA legislation, first passed in 1975, the federal government committed to pay 40 percent of the average per pupil expenditure for special education. That pledge has never been met, and current funding is at 14.7 percent of the average expenditure per pupil.

This week, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers introduced legislation in the House and the Senate that would require the federal government to fully fund IDEA.

Trump and DeVos proposed spending the same amount for IDEA Part B in 2020 as in 2019: $12.3 billion for IDEA formula grants to states to support special education and early intervention services. They also kept level for 2020 a request for $226 million for IDEA discretionary grants to support research, technical assistance and other things.

DeVos mentioned the IDEA funding when she was questioned Tuesday about Special Olympics at a House appropriations subcommittee hearing about the budget proposal. It didn’t go well.

DeVos was asked by Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), about non-IDEA cuts she was proposing:

  • Eliminating the $17.6 million the agency gives Special Olympics (a private organization to which DeVos has personally donated).
  • A $7.5 million cut to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (which Pocan incorrectly identified as being for blind students), which would bring federal funding to $70 million.
  • A $13 million cut for Gallaudet University in the District, which would bring federal funding for the school for the deaf and hearing-impaired down to $121 million.
  • A $5 million cut for the American Printing House for the Blind, a federal program that produces books for blind students. That would leave the federal funding to that program, which produces print books for blind students, to about $25 million.

The conversation went like this:

POCAN: Do you know how many kids are going to be affected by that [Special Olympics] cut, Madame Secretary?

DeVOS: Mr. Pocan, let me just say again we had to make some difficult decisions with this budget.

POCAN: Okay, this is a question of how many kids. Not about the budget.

DeVOS: I don’t know the number of kids.

POCAN: Okay. It’s 272,000 kids. . . .

DeVOS: I think Special Olympics is an awesome organization, one that is well supported by the philanthropic sector as well. . . .

POCAN: I have two nephews with autism. What is it that we have a problem with children who are in special education? Why are we cutting all of these programs over and over within this budget?

DeVOS: Well, sir, we have continued to retain the funding levels for IDEA and held that level. So in the context of. . .

POCAN: I’m sorry, I don’t think I brought up IDEA. I believe I brought up Special Olympics, special education grants to states, the National Technical Institute for the Blind, Gallaudet University, the federal program for printing books. So if you could address those? That’s the question I would really appreciate.

DeVOS: I will address the broader question.

POCAN: Or if you could actually address the question I asked. That’s even a better way to answer a question.

DeVOS: Supporting students with special needs. We have continued to hold that funding level . . . and in the context of a budget proposal that is a 10 percent reduction.