Women's Panel Accused of Abandoning Equity Goal
Washington--The recently reorganized National Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs, meeting here for the second time, last week called for substantial changes in the operations of an eight-year-old Education Department (ed) program that conservatives have labeled a ''money-making machine for a network of openly radical feminist groups."
The council is one of nine Presidentially appointed advisory groups in education whose role is to offer suggestions on policy in the areas they oversee. Last April, President Reagan replaced 17 members of the group who had been appointed by Presidents Ford and Carter.
Chief among the new council's recommendations was a proposal to earmark half of the Women's Educational Equity Act (weea) program's projected fiscal 1983 budget of approximately $5.7 million for a new program of cash scholarships for college-bound high-school girls who display an aptitude for mathematics and the sciences.
The council members said the scholarship program is consistent with weea's mandate to carry out activities to "provide educational equity for women" because it would help young women entering technical professions.
Rosemary Thomson, the council's executive director, added in an interview after the panel's meeting that she had spoken to Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell about the scholarship proposal and he responded "enthusiastically" to it.
But representatives of several women's rights organizations who attended the meeting charged that the scholarship proposal was intended not so much to promote sex equity in education as to prevent weea from supporting groups, such as the National Organization for Women and the Planned Parenthood Organization, whose philosophies run counter to those of the Reagan Administration and its supporters outside the government.
The advisory panel's proposal was also criticized by a former council chairman and the council's recently ousted executive director as a violation, in both spirit and letter, of weea's authorizing legislation.
"They would be stretching weea quite far if they say that the law authorizes the establishment of a new scholarship program," said Joy Simonson, the council's former executive director.
Ms. Simonson is a member of a "shadow" advisory council on women's educational programs formed earlier this month to monitor the presidentially-appointed council's activities and other Administration actions on matters regarding sex equity in education.
"The intent of the legislation was to provide funds for the creation of model programs, and not for student assistance," added Bernice R. Sandler, the council's first chairman and a member of the panel until this summer. "The fact that they don't seem to understand that indicates, unfortunately, their ignorance on matters of sex equity."
In addition to the scholarship proposal, the council also approved policies that would:
Add a section to weea grant and contract applications requiring representives of "women's" or "advocacy" organizations to identify themselves as such when applying for program funds.
Prevent individuals and organizations from applying for or receiving more than one weea grant or contract per fiscal year, even if the requested funds are for projects in different areas of inquiry.
Prevent individuals and organizations from using weea monies to cover "indirect" costs such as utilities and office supplies.
Require weea to spend 50 percent of its program funds on the proposed scholarship program, 30 percent on contracts, and 20 percent on grants. Currently, the majority of weea program funds are spent on grants.
The scholarship proposal and oth-er actions taken by the advisory committee last week marked the latest round in a controversy over the purpose and activities of the weea program.
Last April, the program was spotlighted in an unsigned article appearing in the monthly Conservative Digestthat criticized the Administration for financing liberal organizations. The article also called for the "dethronement" of the weea program's director, Leslie R. Wolfe.
Shortly after the article appeared, Ms. Wolfe was temporarily reassigned from her position at weea to a position in ed's office of management. ed officials denied at that time that her 90-day reassignment was in any way related to the article.
New Council Members
In April, President Reagan also announced that he planned to fill 17 of the 20 positions on the advisory council with new members. The council, among other duties, oversees and recommends policy for the weea program.
On July 19, in their first official action only hours after they were sworn into office, the council's new members voted 13 to 4 to fire Ms. Simonson, who had been the council's executive director since its establishment in 1975.
The council later hired Ms. Thomson to replace Ms. Simonson. Ms. Thomson was the director of the Illinois Eagle Forum, a self-described "pro-family" organization that lobbied against the adoption of the equal rights amendment.
Congress approved weea in 1974 with the mandate to carry out programs that "provide educational equity for women." This year, it operated with a $5.7 million budget, $3.5 million of which was distributed in grants and contracts for the development of curriculum materials and model projects that promote the equal treatment of women in education.
The Reagan Administration requested no funds for the program in fiscal 1983, but Congressional sources have indicated that it will be continued at or near the same level of funding in the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on Oct. 1.