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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

DeVos Didn’t Try to ‘Defund’ Special Education

In a CNN town hall, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a Democratic candidate for president, went too far when she said Education Secretary Betsy DeVos “not only has tried to defund special education, but she also has tried to get rid of the Special Olympics funding.”

Klobuchar has a point about the Special Olympics, but the administration’s proposed budget keeps the bulk of the special education funding intact.

It’s true that the proposed fiscal year 2020 Department of Education budget sought to eliminate federal contributions to the Special Olympics — a cut that DeVos later said she opposed behind the scenes and that President Donald Trump reversed after public outcry. But most of the federal government’s funding for special education flows through Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, and the department’s budget proposed keeping that federal funding at $13.2 billion — the same as Congress approved for FY2019.

DeVos found herself in the national media spotlight for her department’s proposed budget cut of nearly $18 million for the Special Olympics and more than $20 million to other programs that serve blind and deaf students.

During the CNN town hall on April 22, an audience member asked Klobuchar about DeVos’ attempts to “slash funding from special needs programs.”

Klobuchar noted that she “strongly opposed” DeVos’ appointment as secretary of education.

“It is no surprise to me that these things keep happening, and she not only has tried to defund special education, but she also has tried to get rid of the Special Olympics funding, if you watched any of this,” Klobuchar said.

Later in her answer, Klobuchar, who supports substantially increasing federal IDEA funding, said the Trump administration wants to “reduce the funding for special ed and for the Olympics which then had a reverse on because there was such a public outcry. That hurts people with disabilities, and they haven’t done anything to fund education for people with disabilities. So I give them, since you’re all students, an ‘F.'”

In often confrontational congressional testimony, DeVos attempted to defend the cuts, noting that she was under a directive to cut 10 percent from the overall education budget and “we had to make some difficult decisions with this budget.” DeVos added that the Special Olympics is “well-supported by the philanthropic sector.”

“What is it that we have a problem with children who are in special education? “Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan asked in a widely reported exchange.

DeVos noted that the proposed budget kept IDEA funding levels the same, even in the context of an overall 10 percent cut to the education budget.

Pocan, though, said he was talking about cuts to other programs, including ones that support blind and deaf students.

Indeed, the proposed budget did call for cuts to programs for the disabled, including:

  • Reducing federal funding to Gallaudet University, a school for the deaf, by $13 million, to $121 million.
  • Cutting the federal allocation for the American Printing House for the Blind, a program that produces books for blind students, by $5 million, to $25 million.
  • Cutting the funding for the National Technical Institute for the Deaf by $8 million, to $70 million.
  • And reducing the funding for the Helen Keller National Center from $13 million to $10 million.

When we contacted Klobuchar’s office, it cited cuts to those programs — which are authorized under legislation separate from IDEA — as well as proposed cuts to programs that include services for those with special needs, including Arts in Education, which offers special programs for disabled students, and the Office of Disability Employment Policy, which seeks to eliminate barriers in the training and employment of people with disabilities. 

In a statement released on March 27, DeVos defended the administration’s commitment to special education funding.

“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,” DeVos stated. “The President’s budget reflects that commitment. It supports our nation’s 7 million students with disabilities through a $13.2 billion request for IDEA funding, the same funding level appropriated by Congress. All of that money goes directly to states to ensure students with disabilities have the resources and supports they need. The budget also requests an additional $225.6 million for competitively awarded grants to support teacher preparation, research and technical assistance to support students with disabilities.”

The National Education Association told us that although the department’s budget proposes to keep the federal contribution to IDEA at the same level it was in FY2019, the average federal share per child would be less in FY2020 because the average cost per pupil is expected to rise, as is the number of children with disabilities served.

After he reversed course on funding the Special Olympics, Trump told reporters on March 28, “I have overridden my people.” Trump’s previous budget proposals similarly called for eliminating Special Olympics funding, but Congress funded it anyway.

Interestingly, DeVos — who last year contributed a quarter of her salary, $50,000, to the Special Olympics — said she has fought behind the scenes to keep the Special Olympics funding in the administrations’ proposed budgets, but according to CNN, she was rebuffed by the White House budget office.

One can take issue with the proposed cuts to several programs that serve people with disabilities. But that is different from attempting to “defund special education,” as Klobuchar put it. The proposed cuts to those programs are a fraction of the money proposed for special education funding through IDEA.

Klobuchar’s office said she “made it clear that this was both defunding some programs, as well as reducing funding of other programs.” But the line between cutting funding for some programs for people with disabilities versus special education funding through IDEA has been blurred in the public debate, and Klobuchar’s comment that DeVos sought to “defund special education” contributes to the confusion.

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Education Secretary Betsy DeVos "has tried to defund special education."
CNN town hall
Monday, April 22, 2019