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Wednesday, April 24, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Washington lawmakers defend Special Olympics funding

Special Olympian Scott Tobin, center, waves to his parents from the center of Reese Court at Eastern Washington University as he and fellow athletes Peter Condon, second from right, and Bryce Barlow, right, were announced as regional champions who will head to national games next summer. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Special Olympian Scott Tobin, center, waves to his parents from the center of Reese Court at Eastern Washington University as he and fellow athletes Peter Condon, second from right, and Bryce Barlow, right, were announced as regional champions who will head to national games next summer. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Washington lawmakers opposed a proposal that would cut federal funding to Special Olympics, a stance President Trump is retreating from as well, the Associated Press reported.

The education budget put forth by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos would eliminate $17.6 million from the organization’s budget, amounting to about 10 percent of total revenue of the Special Olympics. Dave Lenox, president and CEO of Special Olympics Washington, said its branch receives $200,000 in federal funding.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a Republican, and Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat, voiced disapproval of the education department’s plan.

“It’s important to remember that this is just a proposal and Congress is the final decision-maker on federal funding,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “I will actively oppose any efforts to cut these important programs in the House.”

Lenox said he frequently works with legislators and feels confident that he has their support.

“Secretary DeVos has cut Special Olympics out of the education budget for the last three years,” Lenox said. “So every year she cuts it out, and every year Congress puts it back in.”

Murray addressed DeVos directly at the Senate budget hearing.

“This is not about tough choices, this is about you prioritizing your agenda over students with special needs,” Murray said.

DeVos defended the proposal, saying that the Department of Education had to make “tough choices” and asserted that the Special Olympics can be supported through private donations.

Lenox said he doesn’t think that DeVos understands that the federal funding does not go toward the Special Olympics competitions.

“It sounds like she has not been briefed very well on what these funds do,” Lenox said. “… The thing that we do with these funds is go into schools to try to reduce bullying and create a more inclusive and welcoming school environment.”

Special Olympics’ federal funding goes toward the Unified Champion Schools program, which sets up sports teams at schools where half of the players have intellectual disabilities and half do not.

“They play as equals on the team, allowing them to bond as friends, but they do everything through the lens of sports,” Lenox said. “… We use the power of sports as a bonding tool, and it’s a great equalizer as it turns out.”

DeVos has said that defunding Special Olympics was not something she pushed specifically, but that she stood by the budget.

Special Olympics Washington tracks the program by congressional districts. Last year, 12,930 students attended at least one event and 354 have participated in unified sports experiences within the Eastern Washington congressional district. Fifteen high schools in the district participated in the program, including Ferris, University and Freeman high schools.

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