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Betsy DeVos grilled in Congress over proposed elimination of Special Olympics funding

"What is it that we have a problem with, with children who are in special education?" a Democratic representative asked the education secretary.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos struggled before a congressional subcommittee on Tuesday to defend the administration's proposal to cut at least $7 billion from education programs, including eliminating all $18 million in federal funding for the Special Olympics.

When Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., a member of the House Appropriations subcommittee, asked whether DeVos knew how many children would be affected by cutting Special Olympics funding, DeVos said she did not know.

Pocan responded: "I’ll answer it for you, that's OK, no problem. It’s 272,000 kids that are affected."

DeVos then said, "I think that the Special Olympics is an awesome organization, one that is well supported by the philanthropic sector as well."

Pocan at that point interrupted the education secretary to say that the proposed budget includes a 26 percent reduction to state grants for special education and millions of dollars in cuts to programs for students who are blind.

After referring to his own nephews with autism, Pocan asked DeVos, "What is it that we have a problem with, with children who are in special education?"

She replied, “Supporting children with special needs, we have continued to hold that funding at a level amount and in the context of a budget proposal that is a 10 percent reduction."

The congressman stopped DeVos and claimed she was not answering his question.

Pocan wasn't the only House member to criticize DeVos over the proposed cuts to special education.

Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., noted that past proposed budgets also attempted to eliminate federal funding for the Special Olympics.

"I still can’t understand why you would go after disabled children in your budget," Lee said Tuesday. "You zero that out. It’s appalling.”

Competitors in rhythmic gymnastics dance during the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, on March 20, 2019.Karim Sahib / AFP - Getty Images

An administration official seemed to try to quell the backlash saying that DeVos donates her nearly $200,000 salary and the Special Olympics has been a recipient of that donation.

DeVos in a statement Wednesday defended the proposal to eliminate Special Olympics funding, saying it is "not a federal program."

"It's a private organization. I love its work, and I have personally supported its mission. Because of its important work, it is able to raise more than $100 million every year," DeVos said. Eliminating its federal funding is a matter of "budget realities," she said, as the government is unable to fund "every worthy program."

She also said President Donald Trump's budget proposal reflects a commitment to the nation's "7 million students with disabilities through a $13.2 billion request for special education funding, the same amount appropriated by Congress.

Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., chairwoman of the appropriations subcommittee, said at the hearing Tuesday that the administration's proposed education budget includes about $2 billion in cuts to Pell Grants on top of billions in reductions to about 30 other programs.

Trump also targeted education spending in both of his previous budget proposals, but Congress actually increased spending for the department's programs that help students with learning disabilities last year, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

The Special Olympics is the world's largest sports organization for people with intellectual and physical disabilities. Founded in 1968 by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, it works with more than 5 million athletes across 174 countries, according to the Special Olympics website.

The organization receives some funding from the U.S. government but also has sponsorships from private companies. Some of the program's listed sponsors include United Airlines, Toyota and The Procter & Gamble Co.

The Special Olympics has 6,500 Unified Champion schools across the country where 272,000 students participate in sports programs, according to a spokeswoman for the organization.

"These opportunities would not be available without this funding. We are on track to reach 7,500 schools by the end of this school year and 8,500 next year," a spokeswoman for the Special Olympics said.

Maria Shriver, an NBC News anchor whose mother founded the Special Olympics, accused DeVos of "cutting the soul of our country" on Twitter Wednesday.

"This is one of the few issues both parties agree on and we need that in our country today. This is a values issue," Shriver wrote. "@BetsyDeVosED who are you? How do you make your decisions? We cannot move our country forward with cuts like this. You are cutting the soul of our country."

Tim Shriver, Maria's brother, is the chairman of the Special Olympics told NBC News that the organization disagrees with the proposed cuts.

"Our young people believe that everybody counts," Tim Shriver said Wednesday. "They have not lost that hope and dream. The Special Olympics today is helping them live it out."