The Education Department failed to include funding for the Special Olympics in its budget proposal this year after it was rebuffed by the White House’s budget office, a department official familiar with the process tells CNN.
Department officials tried repeatedly to include the nearly $18 million in funding while still coming in under the White House’s budget cap, but officials at the Office of Management and Budget rejected each proposal, according to the official.
Education Department staff were forced this week to watch Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos defend before Congress the unpopular proposed cuts that officials there had largely opposed, only to have the President roll back the cuts two days later. One staffer described the experience to others as the “week from hell.”
DeVos faced intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill Tuesday over her proposed budget to the Special Olympics, which provides sports programs for children and adults with intellectual disabilities. DeVos defended the reduction by pointing out the organization receives $100 million from private donors, and later said she was not personally involved in the decision to cut those funds.
“We had to make some difficult decisions in this budget,” she told Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin, during her Tuesday testimony before the House’s subcommittee on education appropriations.
DeVos’ testimony was covered widely and sparked a negative backlash against the administration’s proposal. On Thursday, as the backlash mounted, Trump told reporters at the White House that he had “overridden” DeVos. “The Special Olympics will be funded,” he said. A White House aide tells CNN the President “had no idea” about the funding cut until he saw media reports. The White House’s budget proposal is in fact just a recommendation, and Congress ultimately sets a budget and appropriates funds.
DeVos released a statement Thursday saying she was “pleased and grateful the President and I see eye-to-eye on this issue.” The statement also said, “This is funding I have fought for behind the scenes over the last several years,” which is a departure from what she had said the prior two days, but which is true, according to two people familiar with the process who spoke to CNN on the condition on anonymity.
DeVos, one of the wealthiest members of Trump’s Cabinet, has donated to the Special Olympics, including part of her current government salary, a point she used to defend the proposed cuts. In February 2017, just a week after being sworn in as education secretary, she participated in an event with Special Olympics athletes with the group’s chairman, Tim Shriver.
The two people said department officials have tried for three years to include the Special Olympics funding in its budget request. The OMB and its director, Mick Mulvaney (who is now also the acting White House chief of staff), required that the Education Department submit a budget that fit under a cap that would allow the administration to say its overall proposal would balance. This year, the cap amounted to a 10% reduction in education’s budget.
According to the education official, the department submitted a request to OMB that came underneath the cap while also maintaining the Special Olympics funding. The official said the White House sent back a revision that removed the funding. Education continued to submit proposals that kept the $18 million for Special Olympics and remained under the cap, but each time, said the official, OMB struck the line item from the request.
When asked to respond, OMB declined to comment on how the proposal was reached and offered a statement from a senior administration official. “The President trusts his agencies and staff to implement his goals, yet when he learned of this issue, he has a big heart and made an executive decision. While the budget requests over $13 billion for special education, this administration has also always made clear that the Special Olympics is a worthy cause. His announcement yesterday does not change the overall goals of the budget and we will work with Congress to ensure the President’s priorities and agenda are advanced on behalf of the American people,” the statement read.
Two education officials, one current and one former, say they believe the insistence from OMB was borne out of ideological opposition to government funding for a private organization. The officials did not believe the concern was primarily fiscal despite the fact that DeVos’s initial defense before Congress emphasized the need to make hard-nosed decisions to rein in spending.
“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,” DeVos said in her testimony Tuesday.
The education official added that the department and secretary had considered it a victory that it had maintained level funding for larger programs, particularly Title I programs for schools serving large amounts of students from poor families, and programs for students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. But officials tried unsuccessfully to convince OMB that cutting the relatively small amount from the Special Olympics would be politically unpalatable. Those officials had been worried since the first year of the administration about how DeVos would defend cuts to the popular program.
A White House aide said the back and forth between the agency and the White House’s budget office is fairly typical. “OMB can be pretty ruthless under Mick and Russ,” said the White House aide, referring to Russ Vought, Mulvaney’s deputy and the acting director of OMB.
CNN’s Sarah Westwood contributed to this report.