Equity & Diversity

Title IX: Too Far, Or Not Far Enough?

By Michelle R. Davis — June 19, 2002 7 min read
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Megan Hull was preparing for her freshman year at Brown University, and a spot on the varsity women’s volleyball team, when she got a letter saying school officials were preparing to scrap the team.

It was too late for Ms. Hull to back out, so she went to the Ivy League school in Providence, R.I., anyway. As the team continued its tenuous existence, Ms. Hull quickly realized that women’s sports at Brown got the shabby locker rooms, lower-paid coaches, and the economy-style travel.

In the early 1990s, Ms. Hull and her teammates filed an ultimately successful lawsuit under Title IX. That law, which marks its 30th anniversary this month, mandates gender equity at both the K-12 and college levels in everything from sports to career education, to math and science classes. All education programs that receive federal money must comply.

Today, Ms. Hull’s younger sister has just finished her freshman year at Brown, where she is on the volleyball team.

“It is wild,” Megan Hull said. “It’s so great to see her get this chance to play.”

The law, technically Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, has made a huge difference in women’s and girl’s lives. But even as some are celebrating Title IX’s anniversary, the legislation is under the microscope by the Bush administration.

Department of Education officials are tinkering with the regulatory language that discourages single-sex classes in public schools and scrutinizing the law’s mandates on sports. Though administration officials continue to publicly support the law, some groups say there have been behind-the-scenes rumblings that those same officials are seeking ways to blunt Title IX’s impact.

“We have seen over the past month what we think are threats to Title IX,” said Nancy Zirkin, the director of public policy and government relations for the Washington-based American Association of University Women. Those threats, she said, “make us very nervous.”

But other groups say the application of Title IX has gone too far, infringing on men’s sports and warping the intent of the law. The Bush administration “is taking a hard look at it,” said Christine Stolba, a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum, based in Arlington Va. “I hope they’re going to find a more effective way of dealing with it.”

Exasperated federal education officials like Deputy Secretary of Education William D. Hansen say, however, that President Bush strongly supports the existing law and that all the controversy is “much ado about nothing.”

“Each of these organizations have their own respective agendas,” he said in an interview last week. “All of their uncertainties are not based on any facts.”

Bad Old Days

Title IX conjures up images of pony-tailed girls kicking soccer balls, and college softball players digging into the batter’s box. The law has unquestionably had a noticeable impact in sports. In 1972, one in 27 high school girls played varsity sports. In 2001, that number was one in 2.5, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation.

But Title IX is about much more than sports, said Mary C. Curtis, an associate athletic director at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, who helped create a Web site about Title IX.

“It bothers me,” Ms. Curtis said, that Title IX is associated mostly with women’s athletics. “It’s significantly changed women’s access to education,” she said.

Marcia Greenberger, a co-president of the National Women’s Law Center, remembers life before Title IX. Her high school girls’ basketball team played only a half- court game, and members could dribble the ball only three times before they were required to pass. Teachers thought girls could harm their fertility by running, she said.

Later, when Ms. Greenberger went to college, women had curfews, but men did not. She was told by an adviser not to pursue a doctorate because as a woman she wouldn’t put it to good use.

“Once the law was passed, people began to examine their assumptions and their behaviors,” Ms. Greenberger said. “Things that were taken as an automatic, without being examined, were reviewed.”

Signed by President Nixon just days after the Watergate break-in, and when the push for civil rights and women’s rights were cresting, Title IX bars sex discrimination in any educational program or activity that receives federal funding.

Under the law, girls got equal access to physics and geometry classes, band and shop. They must get the same encouragement to become astronauts or engineers as boys do. The law obligated schools to tackle the issue of sexual harassment, and to allow pregnant women and young mothers to continue their education.

Winners and Losers

But some say that in three decades, the world hasn’t come far enough. The National Women’s Law Center said it would be mailing “demand” letters to universities nationwide this week, informing them that female athletes aren’t getting their fair share of scholarship money. Earlier this month, the same group petitioned the Department of Education’s office for civil rights, saying that vocational education continues to steer girls into lower- paying, traditionally female jobs. (“Advocates Call for Breakdown of Gender Barriers in Voc. Ed.,” June 12, 2002.)

And a sweeping report issued last week by the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, made up of 50 organizations, graded compliance with Title IX in several areas. Grades ranged from a D-plus in technology education to a B in access to higher education.

Some women’s groups also believe the law is on shaky ground with the current administration. Rumors recently found their way into newspapers nationwide that Bush administration officials were seeking a way to back off enforcement of Title IX.

Last month, the Education Department announced it would be open to rewriting the regulations that interpret Title IX when it comes to single-sex education, now discouraged by the law. Administration officials cited anecdotal evidence, and some research, indicating that single-sex instruction can provide better education for some students of both sexes. (“Department Aims to Promote Single-Sex Schools,” May 15, 2002.)

“We’re definitely concerned that the Bush administration is willing to open up these Title IX regulations,” said Leslie Annexstein, a senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center. In place since 1975, the regulations have not been tinkered with much since then, she said.

But Mr. Hansen, the department’s No. 2 official, said revisiting those regulations flows directly from the goals included in President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001 to give parents more options. He said there is no plan to open up any other Title IX regulations for rewriting.

More recently, the Department of Justice, on behalf of the Education Department, responded to a lawsuit in which male wrestlers alleged schools were being forced to scrap less popular men’s sports to comply with Title IX. Though groups like Ms. Annexstein’s were pleased that a Justice Department brief moved to dismiss the suit, it did so only on technical grounds, not addressing the overall issue, she said.

The Education Department’s general counsel, Brian W. Jones, said a legal document was not the place to express Title IX support. Groups concerned that “we didn’t take the opportunity to engage in political chest-pounding about the progress of Title IX” are off-base, he said. “That is simply not a function of a motion to dismiss.”

More subtle signs of the administration’s stand exist as well, champions of Title IX say. An administration policy analyst on leave from her job recently published a scathing book critiquing Title IX, saying the law had been taken so far that boys, not girls, are being discriminated against.

In addition, the Women’s Educational Equity Act Resource Center, a Newton, Mass., nonprofit organization formed in 1974 by federal legislation to provide support to groups receiving grants to work on Title IX issues, is getting less business these days, said spokeswoman Susan J. Smith. At the height of its operations, the organization was working on 60 or 70 projects. Now, it has 16 grantees.

The federally financed organization, whose budget has been $3 million for the past five years, found that under Mr. Bush’s proposed fiscal 2003 budget, its allocation would be zero. Mr. Hansen said that has happened under previous administrations. Some Title IX critics, meanwhile, say the law has gone too far when it comes to sports, and that there is a danger that its emphasis on percentages could push into other areas.

Ms. Stolba with the Independent Women’s Forum says the wrestling lawsuit stems from a focus on “statistical parity,” an approach she says doesn’t reflect different interests by boys and girls. Under Title IX, if half the student enrollment at a college is female, then women are supposed to account for half the school’s athletes, she said.

“That could easily be carried into physics classes or other classes,” she said. Title IX “takes as a starting assumption that men and women have exactly the same interests,” Ms. Stolba said, “and I don’t think that’s true.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2002 edition of Education Week as Title IX: Too Far, Or Not Far Enough?

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