Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told senators on Thursday morning that she was not personally involved in the decision to propose eliminating funding for the Special Olympics, but continued to defend the cut included in her department’s budget.
Hours later, as the controversy continued to escalate, President Donald Trump himself stepped in, saying that he had “overridden” DeVos’ plans.
“The Special Olympics will be funded. I just told my people, I want to fund the Special Olympics and I just authorized a funding of the Special Olympics,” Trump told reporters at the White House before departing for a rally in Michigan.
He continued, “I’ve been to the Special Olympics. I think it’s incredible and I just authorized a funding. I heard about it this morning. I have overridden my people. We’re funding the Special Olympics.”
Shortly after Trump’s comments, DeVos issued a statement saying that she and the President agree.
“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,” DeVos said.
The reversal capped three days of public outcry aimed at DeVos, who had proposed similar cuts in previous years. Congress has rejected the proposals and preserved funding in each budget cycle.
The Special Olympics released a statement later in the day to express gratitude to Trump for the change.
“He joins a long history of over 50 years of United States Presidents and members of Congress on both sides of the aisle in their support of Special Olympics and the work we do in communities throughout the country,” the Special Olympics said.
While the program has enjoyed bipartisan support, Democrats led the charge against cuts in hearings this week.
Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin raised the issue at Thursday’s budget hearing, saying that if DeVos hadn’t come up with the cut, the person who did should get “a Special Olympic gold medal for insensitivity.”
As she did earlier in the week, DeVos argued that the Special Olympics doesn’t need federal backing because it’s a private organization that raises money from donations.
“I love Special Olympics myself, I have given a portion of my salary to Special Olympics. I hope all of this debate encourages lots of private contributions to Special Olympics,” DeVos said Thursday.
She continued, “Let’s not use disabled children in a twisted way for your political narrative. That is just disgusting and it’s shameful, and I think we should move on from that.”
Durbin fired back: “Well Madam Secretary, let me tell you, eliminating $18 million from a $70 or $80 billion budget, I think is shameful, too. I am not twisting it.”
However, DeVos has proposed the elimination twice before and lawmakers have rejected it, appropriating $17.6 million for the Special Olympics last year as part of an overall funding increase for the department.
The secretary has pointed to the fact that she’s requesting $13.2 billion for grants to states under the department’s Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and another $225.6 million for teacher preparation, research and technical assistance to support children with disabilities. These requests would maintain level funding for the department’s core special education programs.
Overall, DeVos’ proposed budget would eliminate 29 programs for an annual savings of $6.7 billion. Some are duplicative, have achieved their original purpose, are narrowly focused, or unable to demonstrate their effectiveness, according to a department budget document.
Trump publicly challenged his Cabinet heads last year to make 5% budget cuts.
At the hearing, DeVos repeated what she told the House committee earlier in the week, saying that Congress has rejected her previous requests to reduce her department’s budget.
“I also acknowledge that it’s easier to keep spending, to keep saying yes, and to keep saddling tomorrow’s generations with today’s growing debts,” she said.
Democrats also criticized the secretary for not doing more to help defrauded student borrowers who are waiting for their loan forgiveness applications to be processed.
About 140,000 people have applications pending. Many have been waiting for years as DeVos fought to block the Obama-era rule from going into effect. She wants to rewrite it to ensure taxpayers aren’t paying to cancel loans for students who weren’t actually harmed by their colleges.
But a court ordered the department to implement the rule, known as “borrower defense,” in October. People can apply if they believe their school inflated job placement numbers, for example, or misled them about a program’s accreditation.
“There’s nothing stopping you from providing full relief to struggling borrowers today. Surely there must be some of those borrowers who you feel deserve a full discharge,” said Washington Democratic Sen. Patty Murray.
When the senator asked DeVos how many claims had been processed since the court order, the secretary said she did not know — though she said that the department is “reviewing them regularly.”
Murray, who has previously asked for the number in writing, was not satisfied with that response.
“It appears to me we haven’t moved forward at all on this and that’s not fair to the students or their families or their future,” Murray said.
DeVos also took heat over problems that borrowers have experienced when applying for the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Many say they were misled by their student loan servicing companies about whether they qualified for the program, which is designed to encourage workers with student debt to remain in jobs that may be low-paid but serve the public, including teachers, primary care doctors, public defenders and social workers.
When asked by Oregon Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley what she is doing to hold loan servicers accountable to improve the process, DeVos blamed Congress for making it difficult for students to qualify.
“The rules that you set up, the legislation you passed, make it difficult,” the secretary said.
Students must have a certain kind of federal loan, work in the public sector, and pay for 10 years before qualifying for loan forgiveness.
Merkley disagreed that the law was totally to blame, calling DeVos’ response “unsatisfactory.”
“It appears that what’s going on is that you are working in partnership with these for-profit servicers rather than fighting for these public servants who were promised forgiveness,” he added.
DeVos has proposed eliminating the program for future students in her past three budgets, but Congress has not approved that.