US Education Department to announce changes in complying with gender equity law in sports

By Dorie Turner, AP
Monday, April 19, 2010

Officials reverse Bush policy on equity compliance

The U.S. Department of Education is repealing a Bush-era policy that some critics argue was a way to avoid complying with federal law in providing equal opportunities for female athletes.

Under the move, schools and colleges must now provide stronger evidence that they offer equal opportunities for athletic participation under the federal Title IX gender equity law.

It reverses a 2005 policy under former President George W. Bush that allowed schools to use just a survey to prove a lack of interest in starting a new women’s sport and encouraged schools to consider a non-response to the questionnaire as disinterest.

“Making Title IX as strong as it possibly can be is the right thing to do,” Vice President Joe Biden said Tuesday at an event at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., announcing the change.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan cautioned that discrimination continues to exist in college athletic programs and urged vigilance in enforcing the law. The Education Department announced last month that it will be intensifying its civil rights enforcement efforts on a broad range of topics, gender equity among them.

The department has sent letters about the change in Title IX policy to more than 15,600 school districts and 5,600 college and university presidents.

“This is a great step, a reaffirmation of faith in equality for women,” said former U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh, who helped pass the law in 1972 and called the change long overdue.

Schools have three ways to comply with Title IX: Match the proportion of female athletes to the proportion of women on campus; show a history of increasing sports for women; or prove the school has met the interest and ability of women to participate in athletics.

Before 2005, the third option required districts and colleges to use multiple indicators to assess athletic interests and abilities. The new letter informs institutions that survey results alone cannot justify an imbalance in women’s sports.

It’s unclear how many schools used the survey as a measure of federal compliance and what the impact was, since schools aren’t required to state which of the three Title IX compliance standards they are using, said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center, a nonprofit organization based in Washington.

There aren’t any statistics to show opportunities for women were denied, but Chaudhry suggested it was a possibility.

“Why wouldn’t they use this policy?” she said. “It’s an easy way out.”

Data collected by the NCAA shows the number of female athletes at member institutions rose from 157,740 in 2000-2001 to 182,503 in 2008-2009. The number of male athletes rose from 217,114 to 244,267 — a slightly larger increase than that seen among women athletes.

At the same time, there are more women’s teams than men’s — 9,560 compared to 8,465, a difference due to the larger rosters on men’s teams, according to the NCAA. That’s because it takes multiple women’s teams to equal the number of men on a football team, which can be more than 100 players.

Before Tuesday’s event began, female college and Olympic athletes led groups of girls in athletic activities, including soccer drills, passing volleyballs, shooting baskets and doing cheerleading lifts. Some of the girls wore green Girl Scout sashes and could be heard shouting, giggling and squealing with enthusiasm.

“We have a long way to go still and we want to take away every barrier that exists,” Biden said.

Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, said during a news conference with reporters that while the survey is important, it ought not to be the only measure.

“We think we’ve opened up the door for institutions to use the surveys correctly,” Ali said.

But Gerald Reynolds, a former Education Department official under Bush, said the new policy is a step back for women’s rights because it focuses more on numbers than what female and male students want.

“The women’s movement was in part about ensuring women’s liberty interests — that in the hopes, wishes and desires about any aspect of their life, they were the shot-callers,” said Reynolds, chairman of the National Commission on Civil Rights. “I think we are trampling upon that concept.”

Reynold’s commission recently released a report on Title IX that supported the 2005 policy, saying it was the most accurate way to ensure equality in athletics.

Critics of Title IX say revoking the policy will have a chilling effect on students expressing their opinions.

“The problem comes in because most athletic departments have more male than female athletes,” said Eric Pearson, chairman of the College Sports Council, which takes issue with proportionality as a way of complying with Title IX.

“The disparity doesn’t necessarily mean that there is discrimination,” he said.

Still, NCAA officials called the Obama administration’s decision a positive step for women. The organization has previously said that the survey recommended under the 2005 policy change would not provide an adequate indicator of interest among young men, nor encourage them to participate.

“Nearly 200,000 female student athletes currently compete at NCAA institutions across all three divisions, and while progress toward equity has been made, it has not been fully realized. Using the 1996 standard will help our member institutions thoroughly evaluate the interests of women on their campuses,” Joni Comstock, senior vice president for championships, said in a statement.

Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a law professor and senior director for advocacy with the Women’s Sports Foundation, said female participation in sports is the most effective remedy against obesity and leads to more education and better employment prospects — including in fields traditionally dominated by men.

“That’s why all of this is so important,” she said.

Associated Press writer Natasha Metzler in Washington contributed to this report.


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