Published Online:

Ruling Seen as Symbolic, Legal Victory

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Last week, one day after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 protects employees as well as students in schools and colleges, federal investigators began preparing to "reactivate" their investigations into complaints of sex discrimination in educational employment.

The Education Department's office for civil rights had suspended action on complaints of sex-based job bias in educational institutions more than two years ago in the wake of several appellate-court decisions limiting the reach of the law to students.

Of the 214 such cases "on hold" in the department, according to Margaret A. Kohn, a lawyer for the National Women's Law Center, at least 88 are complaints from employees in elementary and secondary schools.

The resumption of federal enforcement, however, is only the most immediate of the anticipated consequences of the Court's decision, according to lawyers, educators, and advocates for women's groups.

Ending the ambiguous status of Title IX's regulations governing employment is expected to lead educational institutions to look more closely at their compliance; to recognize that sex equity in education is not a "dead issue" despite efforts on the part of the Reagan Administration to dilute the laws that promote it; and, eventually, to bring more women into administrative posts in the public schools, an area in which there has been little progress in the 10 years of the law's existence, according to a number of educators.

The ruling affirms that "Title IX has created an inclusive, whole regulation designed to achieve parity at every level of the educational system--at the student level, the employment level, and the policy level," said Phyllis W. Cheng, director of the commission for sex equity of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

And with more than one avenue for resolving employment complaints, she added, "we will probably be able to achieve parity with greater significance and greater speed than any other sector of the workforce."

Most Effective Law

Although a number of federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination in employment affect educational institutions, Title IX is regarded by many as the most effective for women educators. Because it was designed for education, it is tailored to educational practices, and it can attack widespread "systemic" bias through "class" complaints.

Moreover, many lawyers and educators point out, it requires broad compliance efforts on the part of schools and colleges, includes timetables for the resolution of grievances (the result of a 1977 federal court order), and provides the strongest potential remedy--the termination of federal financial assistance to the educational program in question. (The Court's decision last week, however, left open the question of what constitutes an educational program.)

Linda Potz, for example, the female guidance counselor whose case was one of two considered by the Court in making its ruling, could have filed her complaint under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination in employment on the basis of sex, as well as other characteristics, in all institutions with 15 or more employees. (Title IX and Title VII provide the broadest statutory protection against sex discrimination in educational institutions.)

'Special Expertise'

Ms. Potz's complaint was filed under Title IX in 1977, said her lawyer, Beverly J. Hodgson, "because her case appeared to fall within the special expertise of education officials. They [the office for civil rights] had better investigators with more knowledge of the field, and they reached determinations more quickly" than the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (eeoc), the agency that investigates Title VII complaints. "The eeoc is more attuned to business and industrial practices," Ms. Hodgson said.

"The Department of Education can get in very quickly and do an investigation with all the resources of the federal government," commented another lawyer.

Under Title IX, a complaint can be filed with the Education Department or another department (depending on the educational program's source of federal funds) as soon as a person believes he or she has a grievance. Under Title VII, the person first must exhaust local administrative remedies.

The Education Department is under court order to investigate every complaint and to complete investigation and conciliation efforts within 180 days; if necessary, it has 30 days to begin enforcement proceedings.

The eeoc, on the other hand, has a considerable backlog of cases, according to Ms. Kohn. It must refer cases involving public employees to the Justice Department, and it first seeks relief for individuals, rather than corrective action that would affect similarly situated women, she added. Also, Title VII makes specific exceptions; among them, for example, are seniority systems.

Although no school has yet lost federal funds as a consequence of failing to comply with Title IX, the potentially severe remedy was cited frequently by lawyers and educators as having a "deterrent effect" on the practices of local school boards and administrators.

At a minimum, said Vera Demchenko, coordinator for sex equity for the School District of Philadelphia, the Court's decision will have "psychological impact."

"It's a reinforcement and it's comprehensive. Now, in staff-development sessions, I am able to say that the employment issue is resolved.''

'Counter a Growing Attitude'

It will counter a growing attitude "that attention to sex equity for women is not necessary," she said. "Had the decision been the reverse, it would have been devastating."

Said Ms. Cheng: "The idea that Title IX did not govern employment gave the impression that the law was weak, that it was basically something for students, covering athletics and industrial arts and home economics, for example."

"The decision is symbolic, but it will also have effects in real terms," she added. "It has the potential to revitalize Title IX and reinforce what has been in black and white in the regulations since 1975, but which no one has taken seriously. It gives responsibility to Title IX coordinators to see that there is parity in employment. It should focus attention on recruitment, advertising of positions, hiring and firing procedures, promotion, training, benefits, and job assignments. When something affects the power structure, it will be taken more seriously."

Women compose 70 percent of school personnel, yet they occupy only 14 percent of the secondary-school principalships, commented Ms. Cheng.

Deterred from Using Law

Because of the uncertainty surrounding the scope of the law, women employees have been deterred from using it to resolve employment problems, several people commented. Ms. Hodgson said that was also suggested to her by a regional investigator for the Education Department's office for civil rights.

But whether the Court's decision will result in gains for women in schools' administrative ranks will depend on the "vigor" with which the federal government enforces the law and thereby sets an example for school districts, said most observers.

"Many grievances can be handled at the school level if people have confidence in local procedures," said Susan Bailey, director of the resource center on sex equity for the Council for Chief State School Officers.

"I've seen little movement for women in administration," said Jo Jacobs, sex-equity coordinator for the Michigan Department of Education. "If school districts comply with the law, the Court's decision will materially affect their [woman administrators'] numbers. Employment has been on the back burner; now it is out front."

"Title IX regulations require schools to evaluate, modify, and remediate," Ms. Jacobs added. "That's really affirmative action, and given the ruling, educators can say to schools, 'now you need to look more closely at employment.' If a school doesn't do it, a person can act.''

'Continuity in Equity'

But most educators interviewed said they believed that the Court's decision also will have an effect on students. "It provides continuity in equity--by affecting the environment as well as educational programs," said one educator.

"I think schools are the first employment situation that students see. The messages that students get about the employment of women greatly influence students' aspirations. There are inescapable lessons in the predominance of male administrators and in seeing [professional] women asked to do secretarial work that their male colleagues don't do," said Ms. Hodgson.

"Exposure to men and women in a lot of different roles will have a tremendous impact on the education of students over the long haul," said Theresa Cusick of the Project on Equal Education Rights, a Washington-based group that monitors progress in educational sex equity.

"The entire Title IX effort has been very significant," said Ronald Hildebrand, the districtwide Title IX coordinator for Greeley, Colo. "For us, the Court's decision on employment is really immaterial. The law had already created a great deal of awareness. We have a very strong program that has indirectly affected employment. Title IX caused us to look at educational programs, to ask 'Why is the entire social-studies department male?,' for example, and 'What is the impact of that?"'

"Title IX has caused us to reassess what the dream of American education is all about, to ask what has to happen for all students to realize their potential, to examine what's counterproductive," he added. ''We believe that strong female role models are absolutely necessary."

But the district Mr. Hildebrand describes is very different from that portrayed by a female high-school principal of a school in a rural area in the Midwest.

Not Adequately Protected

"Title IX may have have opened doors in a limited way," but there is no law that adequately protects women employees from discrimination in the schools, she said.

"I am in a district with three administrators. I know that the middle-school principal--who is male, who was hired after I was, and who has fewer credentials--is paid more than I am. There is nothing I can do. If I complained, I'd never get another job around here. I'm not dumb enough to do that."

Even though such complaints under Title IX are supposed to be investigated confidentially, she said, "in other cases I know of, everyone knows who filed."

"Not enough men want to see change, and we still depend on the old-boy network."

Web Only

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Login | Register
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories