WASHINGTON (NBC News) — Proposed cuts in federal funding by Betsy DeVos’ Department of Education to the Special Olympics have concerned advocates and lawmakers who work with children who have intellectual disabilities.
Timothy Shriver, chairman of the Special Olympics, told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell on Wednesday that the proposed cuts would mean “closing down what we are doing in schools to end social isolation” for students with intellectual disabilities.
“We just disagree” with the decision, he said.
Much of the current federal funding to the Special Olympics goes to the charity’s Unified Champion Schools program, which works to bring together athletes with and without intellectual disabilities.
DeVos released a statement Wednesday saying that while she supports students with disabilities, the Special Olympics are not a federal program.
“I love this work, and I have personally supported its mission,” DeVos said. “There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money.”
DeVos believes “given the current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”
Shriver, son of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, founder of the Special Olympics, said the Champion Schools programs are in 6,500 schools and involve close to 2 million children. The program works “to end this age-old fear of children who are different and replace it with a more inclusive worldview.”
Shriver stressed that the Special Olympics’ work falls under the purview of the Department of Education. “We are actively engaged in the education purposes that the country has articulated at the federal level,” he said, adding that the program works to fight bullying, exclusion and discrimination.
“We live in a divided time, everybody knows it,” Shriver said. “Our schools are hungry for a different message. Our young people know that everybody counts.”
Keith Fishburne, president of Special Olympics North Carolina, said his organization is “disappointed that the president didn’t put the funding in his budget.”
Fishburne noted that the same proposed cut was made last year. “The good thing for Special Olympics is we enjoy a great level of support from Congress on both sides of the aisle,” Fishburne said.
He is hoping Congress figures out a way to keep the funding. Currently, the North Carolina branch gets about $250,000 in federal grants for the Unified Champion Schools program, not an insignificant part of their organization’s $5 million budget.
Stacey Hengsterman, president of Special Olympics New York, feels similarly. She said she is “concerned” and “a little disheartened.”
The Unified Champion Schools program has been taking off in New York. It is now in 145 schools, with demand for it be in more, Hengsterman said. “Everybody wants it,” she told NBC News.
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis.,who questioned DeVos at a hearing Tuesday about the proposed cuts, called the proposed cuts “unconscionable” on Wednesday.
“I have two nephews who are autistic. There are millions of families that are touched by children with special needs,” Pocan said on MSNBC.