HOUSTON (FOX 26) - This week’s panel: Wayne Dolcefino – media consultant, Laura Moser – former Democratic congressional candidate, Bob Price – Associate Editor of Breitbart Texas, Tomaro Bell – Super Neighborhood leader, Keir Murray – Democratic strategist, Ben Streusand – conservative commentator, “Three Amigos”, KSEV Radio, join Greg Groogan to talk about Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and funding for Special Olympics.
WASHINGTON (AP) - President Donald Trump says he is backing off his budget request to eliminate funding for the Special Olympics, reversing course on a proposal that was unlikely to be approved by Congress after days of bipartisan criticism.
Speaking to reporters Thursday as he left the White House for a rally in Michigan , Trump said he had authorized funding for the organization.
"I heard about it this morning," he said. "I have overridden my people. We're funding the Special Olympics."
Trump's announcement came after Education Secretary Betsy DeVos spent days defending the proposal , which drew widespread condemnation from lawmakers as well as advocates and celebrities. The president's sudden reversal reflected a political desire to move away from a plan that was not expected to pass Congress but also underscored Trump's comfort with undercutting top officials.
Said Trump: "I've been to the Special Olympics. I think it's incredible."
DeVos, walking back her defense of the cuts proposal, issued a statement, saying: "I am pleased and grateful the President and I see eye to eye on this issue and that he has decided to fund our Special Olympics grant. This is funding I have fought for behind the scenes over the last several years."
The remarks were a sharp contrast from her comments to Senate Democrats in a budget hearing earlier in the day. DeVos said her department had to make "tough choices" on the budget and insisted the Special Olympics should be supported through private donations.
In a heated exchange with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., DeVos said she "wasn't personally involved" in pushing for elimination of the funding, but she defended it as her agency seeks to cut $7 billion for the 2020 budget. "Let's not use disabled children in a twisted way for your political narrative," she said.
The president's shift Thursday was not the first time he has undermined a top aide. He repeatedly berated former Attorney General Jeff Sessions in public and private and clashed openly with former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, ultimately firing him in a tweet.
The Trump administration's education budget proposal called for the elimination of $17.6 million in funding for the Special Olympics, amounting to roughly 10 percent of the group's overall revenue. Most of its funding comes from individual and corporate contributions and other fundraising efforts.
The Special Olympics is the largest sports organization in the world for people with intellectual disabilities, with over 5 million athletes from 174 countries participating in competitions while spreading a global message of inclusion and empowerment. The organization celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
Trump officials previously called for the elimination of Special Olympics funding in their budget proposal for 2019, but Congress rejected the idea. Lawmakers from both parties said they would reject it again for 2020.
Durbin told DeVos on Thursday that it would be shameful to pull support for the Special Olympics, saying "someone has to accept responsibility for a bad decision."
Asked Thursday whether he supports the proposed cut, House Minority Leader Kevin, McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters, "No. I fully support Special Olympics."
Before Trump's announcement his campaign sought to use the funding conflict as an attack against Democrats over abortion. Deputy Communications Director Matt Wolking tweeted Thursday: "I'm sure Democrats who see abortion as the cure for Down syndrome and other disabilities are sincerely concerned about kids having the chance to be in the Special Olympics."
DeVos faced questioning on a range of topics Thursday, including her proposed rewrite of rules around campus sexual assault and her handling of for-profit colleges.
Murray said the Education Department has been too slow to process more than 100,000 applications for loan forgiveness from students who say they were cheated by for-profit colleges. DeVos previously delayed an Obama-era rule allowing such forgiveness, but a federal judge said the delay was unlawful.
Asked on Thursday how many applications had been approved since the judge's order was issued, DeVos she didn't know but that officials are "reviewing them regularly."
Others criticized DeVos' department for being unresponsive to congressional requests for information. Blunt, chairman of the Senate subcommittee over the education budget, said he shared that concern.
"There are two or three departments we're just not getting responses back from as quickly as we should," Blunt told DeVos. "We're your funding source and have an oversight responsibility in addition to that."
Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Wednesday defended a proposal to eliminate funding for the Special Olympics, pushing back against a storm of criticism from athletes, celebrities and politicians who rallied to support the organization.
DeVos became a target on social media after Democrats slammed her plan to remove the group's funding as part of nearly $7 billion in budget cuts for next year. The Special Olympics received $17.6 million from the Education Department this year, roughly 10 percent of its overall revenue.
In a statement responding to criticism, DeVos said she "loves" the organization's work and has "personally supported its mission." But she also noted that it's a private nonprofit that raises $100 million a year on its own. Ultimately, she argued, her agency can't afford to continue backing it.
"There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don't get a dime of federal grant money," she said. "Given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations."
Special Olympics Chairman Tim Shriver on Wednesday pushed back against the proposed cut.
"This is not the old Special Olympics, it's not my mom's Special Olympics in some ways," he said on MSNBC. "This is a new Special Olympics. We are actively engaged in the educational purposes that the country has articulated at the federal level."
In a statement posted Wednesday night on its website, the organization called on "federal, state and local governments to join Special Olympics in remaining vigilant against any erosion of provisions that have made a substantial difference in the lives of people with (intellectual disabilities)."
The statement added, "U.S. Government funding for our education programming is critical to protecting and increasing access to services for people with intellectual disabilities."
The Trump administration tried to eliminate Special Olympics funding in its previous budget proposal, too, but Congress ultimately increased funding for the group. Lawmakers indicated that the latest attempt will also fail.
"Our Department of Education appropriations bill will not cut funding for the program," said Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., chairman of the Senate subcommittee over the education budget. Blunt said he's a "longtime supporter" of the group and recently attended its World Games.
DeVos is expected to present her budget to Blunt's panel Thursday, just days after being grilled over it in the House. Democrats on a House subcommittee asked DeVos how she could cut Special Olympics funding while calling for a $60 million increase in charter school funding.
"Once again, I still can't understand why you would go after disabled children in your budget. You've zeroed that out. It's appalling," Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., said at the hearing.
DeVos told the panel that her department "had to make some difficult decisions," adding that the Special Olympics is best supported by philanthropy.
Following the hearing, Twitter was alight with comments from parents, advocates and celebrities who slammed DeVos and urged her to rethink the proposal.
Joe Haden, who plays for the NFL's Pittsburgh Steelers and works as an ambassador for the Special Olympics, said he was sickened by the cut. "This is so wrong on so many Levels!" he said on Twitter.
Former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, called the proposal outrageous. Kasich, who also represented Ohio in the U.S. House, said that when he was on the budget committee, "these types of programs were off limits - for good reason."
Others opposing DeVos included Julie Foudy , former captain of the U.S. women's soccer team, and actress Marlee Matlin , who said the benefits of the Special Olympics are "immeasurable."
Some Special Olympics athletes joined in to support the group, including Derek "Tank" Schottle, who posted a video that had been viewed more than 140,000 times by Wednesday.
"Win or lose, we're all winners in our hearts," he said. "What warms peoples' hearts is we're all humans, just like everybody else."
The Special Olympics' 2017 annual report, the latest available on its website, says the group received a total of $148 million in revenue that year, including $15.5 million from federal grants.
More than three quarters of the group's revenue comes from individual and corporate contributions and other fundraising efforts.
DeVos' budget places the Special Olympics funding among 29 programs up for elimination in 2020, arguing that they have achieved their purpose or that they are ineffective, don't meet national needs or are better funded from other sources.
The proposal separately calls for $13.2 billion in federal grants awarded to states for special education, the same amount that was given this year.
In her statement, DeVos said it was "shameful" that the media and members of Congress "spun up falsehoods and fully misrepresented the facts." She drew attention to the $13.2 billion in state grants, along with an additional $226 million for grants supporting teacher training and research to help students with disabilities.
"Make no mistake," she added, "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."
This isn't the first time DeVos has run afoul of disability rights advocates.
Some were stunned by a 2017 Senate hearing in which DeVos, while being questioned about a federal law supporting students with disabilities, said it was "a matter that is best left to the states." When asked if she was familiar with the federal law, she said she "may have confused it."
DeVos again roiled advocates last December when she rescinded Obama-era guidance meant to protect racial minorities and students with disabilities from unwarranted discipline. In making the decision, DeVos said discipline decisions should be left to teachers and schools.