For the third year in a row, the Trump administration’s budget proposed to cut all federal spending on Special Olympics programs. This year, the outrage was swift and widespread, and on Thursday, the president said he would restore the funding in his budget.
But remember, Congress, not the president or Cabinet secretaries, sets federal funding, so the president is trying to minimize bad press — and well-intentioned but somewhat misplaced outrage — rather than making a significant policy change.
Beyond the overly dramatic headlines about the Special Olympics funding cuts, there should be real concerns about changes the U.S. Department of Education has already made to rules and programs that support students with disabilities.
First, let’s understand what the Department of Education’s proposal to cut funding to the Special Olympics program meant. The federal government does not fund the annual gatherings of athletes with intellectual disabilities, what most people think of when they hear Special Olympics. That part of the group’s activities is funded by charitable support.
The cuts proposed by the Education Department would impact the work the Special Olympics organization supports in America’s schools, especially the Unified Champion program, which is in dozens of Maine schools.
In Maine, 54 schools have unified basketball teams. Four new programs were added this year, and some schools have unified cheering squads for the games. The Maine Principals’ Association is hoping to expand programs for track and volleyball.
The idea behind unified sports teams is simple: Give all students an opportunity to participate in athletics. Through a partnership between Special Olympics Maine and the MPA, which oversees high school sports, the first unified high school basketball teams started playing in 2015. Special Olympics provides small grants to schools, up to $3,000, to help pay for transportation, uniforms and other costs.
Unified teams are made up of student-athletes with developmental disabilities and partners without disabilities. No more than two partners can be on the court for a team at one time, and they can score no more than 25 percent of a team’s points. The teams are co-ed. Partner players say the program has opened their eyes to the challenges that disabled students face, making them more understanding and accepting.
So, after all the back and forth, it is encouraging that the president supports continued federal funding for this program.
Yet, there is reason for concern about the Department of Education’s approach to students with disabilities. In 2017, for example, the department eliminated 72 guidance documents relating to the educational rights of students with disabilities in the name of streamlining regulations. Although many of the documents were later found to be outdated or redundant, the quick rollback with no explanation left parents and educators worried and confused.
Last year, the department said it would rescind Obama-era guidance on discrimination in school discipline. This led to concerns that the rights of students with disabilities and minority students, who are disproportionately impacted by discipline policies, would be curtailed.
Earlier this month, a federal judge ruled that the federal education department illegally delayed rules that required states to address racial disparities in special education. The two-year delay was “arbitrary and capricious,” the judge said.
Taken together, the department’s funding priorities and rule changes send a troubling message that protecting the rights of and educating students with disabilities is not a top priority.