Bill Bramhall's view of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her plan to cut all $17.6 million in federal funding for the Special Olympics.
Bill Bramhall's view of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and her plan to cut all $17.6 million in federal funding for the Special Olympics. (Bill Bramhall/New York Daily News)

Sometimes, public figures will do things that seem so fantastically foolish that one can scarcely believe they did them. Bribe a college coach in a scheme to get your daughter in a highly selective school, for example. Pretend to be mugged to increase your celebrity and opportunities for acting jobs. Obstruct justice but when your political appointees shield you from prosecution, claim that you’ve been fully exonerated by the special counsel. You know, run-of-the-mill stuff like that.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos on Wednesday pushed back against bipartisan criticism over her plans to slash federal funding for the Special Olympics — but acknowledged that reporting on the matter was accurate.

But once in a while, you’ll hear something so idiotic that you immediately assume it’s a prime candidate for Alternative Fact of the Week, that surely someone is telling tall tales, that it’s some kind of long-form prevarication in the best Donald J. Trump tradition. After all, what rational education secretary would willingly cut federal funding for such a broadly popular program as the Special Olympics, which so greatly benefits children and adults with intellectual disabilities? And on top of that, the savings would be so minuscule — $17.6 million from the U.S. Department of Education’s proposed $64 billion Fiscal 2020 spending plan — that it couldn’t possibly be worth the abuse that would be heaped on Betsy DeVos.


Small wonder Secretary DeVos issued a statement on Wednesday decrying media coverage of the proposal, accusing them and certain members of Congress of “falsehoods and fully misrepresenting the facts.” Make no mistake, she continued, "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.”

Derek "Tank" Schottle dreams of racing in the 2022 Special Olympics USA Games in Orlando.

There was only one minor problem with the education secretary’s defense of her budget choices. That jaw-dropping $17.6 million proposed cut to Special Olympics programs in schools? That was absolutely true, a point she admitted in testimony before a House appropriations subcommittee on Tuesday.

In other words, Secretary DeVos wasn’t unhappy that the press was misrepresenting the facts, she was unhappy that they were accurately reporting them. She would prefer that Americans saw zeroing out federal support for the Special Olympics as some kind of act of fiscal responsibility — as if that relatively paltry sum could make up for the truly irresponsibility budget choices the Trump administration has made, from tax cuts to the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans to diverting billions to build an ill-conceived wall at our southern border. The Special Olympics? That might be among the most worthwhile programs Washington supports, given how it’s grown from the Maryland backyard of Sargent Shriver and Eunice Kennedy Shriver to the first “summer games” of 1968 in Chicago and the global event that it is today.

Does the private sector support the Special Olympics? Absolutely, but that doesn’t mean federal aid isn’t important, too. The Trump administration ought to be proud to participate in a joyful program that attracts as many donations as the Special Olympics. It’s not a sign that taxpayer underwriting isn’t needed or wanted (particularly in schools that can’t otherwise afford to participate), it’s a sign that the Special Olympics has struck a chord with so many people. Private charities support soup kitchens and subsidized housing, but that’s not an argument that the government should end the school lunch program or dissolve HUD.

Frankly, it’s quite possible that Secretary DeVos was against this budget cut. She’s pledged to personally donate to the Special Olympics, and it’s been reported that reduced funding to the Special Olympics has been a White House priority, not hers. As to why President Trump might be anxious to mess with such a popular program that is barely worth worrying about in the context of a massive $4 trillion federal budget? One can only speculate that it’s a product of the program’s longstanding ties to the Kennedy and Shriver families and, in turn, their long connection to the Democratic Party and to progressive causes.

If the Trump administration wants to save some bucks, there are all kinds of better places to trim, beginning with the president’s forays to Mar-a-Lago which, according to the Government Accountability Office, are costing taxpayers $1 million a day, or $13.6 million during 2017 alone. That might not improve Mr. Trump’s golf game, but it would do wonders for those youngsters who get their moment to excel, to be recognized for it, and to be included and embraced.

Hundreds of people gathered outside Soldier Field to celebrate the opening ceremony of the 50th Special Olympics on July 20, 2018. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)