DeVos missed mark in proposing cuts to Special Olympics

The budget proposals coming out of Washington, D.C., these days have us scratching our heads.

On top of President Donald Trump’s proposed cuts to the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative — which we’ve discussed recently on this page and strongly opposed — a severe funding cut for the Special Olympics was recently in the news.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Michigan’s very own, on Wednesday defended her department’s budget, which had initially intended to nix all of the $17.6 million in federal Education Department funding that’s been sent in the past to Special Olympics. Instead, DeVos wanted to give the group a big fat goose egg — zilch, nil, nada, nothing.

Thankfully, our leaders came to their senses, with the president announcing Thursday that he’s “overridden” his people, and “We’re funding Special Olympics.” DeVos followed suit by saying she had always wanted the program to receive funding, according to an Associated Press story.

“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,” she said in the Thursday AP report. “This is funding I have fought for behind the scenes over the last several years.”

It seems a surge of criticism from the public and members of Congress pushed the president and DeVos to flip-flop their positions, a wise decision in our book.

That $17.6 million — a mere pittance compared to the $7 billion in proposed cuts — made up roughly 10 percent of the Special Olympics’ overall revenue.

How anyone can have any qualms about spending money on this group of people, we don’t know. But in our opinion, it’s a perfect example of mindless budget cutting.

In DeVos’ defense, she made a somewhat logical argument for the cut. Special Olympics, she noted, receives a significant amount — about 75 percent — of its revenue from individual and corporate contributions and other fundraising efforts, the AP reported. In 2017, the group had a total revenue of about $148 million.

“There are dozens of worthy nonprofits that support students and adults with disabilities that don’t get a dime of federal grant money,” she said in a Wednesday AP story. “Given our current budget realities, the federal government cannot fund every worthy program, particularly ones that enjoy robust support from private donations.”

But at the same time, that original budget proposal seeks to provide an increase of $60 million in funding for charter schools, a quasi-private, semi-public education industry DeVos and her husband have long championed as the country’s “fix” for underperforming public schools. Considering some of these charter institutions are run by for-profit companies and many aren’t held to the same oversight requirements as traditional schools, we’ll leave the debate over whether these establishments should be considered public or private for another time.

But here’s where DeVos’ original defense of the Special Olympics budget cut falls flat.

According to an AP story from July, philanthropists and their private foundations and charities since 2006 have given away almost half a billion dollars to support charter schools and the expansion of those programs throughout the country. Most of that money — $425 million — has gone to the top 15 “charter school resource” groups. The Walton Family Foundation, run by the heirs to the Walmart fortune, is the largest donor to the state charter advocates, giving $144 million to 27 groups, the AP reported.

Whether that money was spent on lobbyists or in a way that directly benefited the schools is unclear, but we could argue, in DeVos’ own words, that the charter school industry may also “enjoy robust support from private donations.”

Charter schools, when operated correctly, may be all well and good, but we would hope our government leaders are putting considerable thought into the best way to spend public funds, rather than making tone-deaf cuts to sensible programs and allocating that money to support their own investments.

We’re pleased that the Special Olympics money has been restored, but maybe our leaders should consider increasing that amount as recompense for such a crass attempt to slash funding for an outstanding program for those with disabilities.

How many lives has Special Olympics impacted? Dollar for dollar, what is this program really worth? How much economic activity is indirectly supported and generated by events and competitions this program hosts? All things — and more importantly, all people — considered, we’ll bet the outcome is worth far more than the $17.6 million in suggested cuts.