Tennis legend Billie Jean King (right), accompanied by White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaks at a June 2009 event marking the 37th anniversary of the enactment of Title IX. The landmark legislation bans sex discrimination in schools, whether in academics or athletics.
Tennis legend Billie Jean King (right), accompanied by White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, speaks at a June 2009 event marking the 37th anniversary of the enactment of Title IX. The landmark legislation bans sex discrimination in schools, whether in academics or athletics. Charles Dharapak/AP
The Department of Education announced a policy change Tuesday that it says will bolster Title IX.
The 1972 law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in educational institutions that receive federal money. It's best known for guaranteeing equal opportunities in sports for girls and women and is a big reason for the boom in female athletic participation in recent decades.
"Making Title IX as strong as possible is a no-brainer," Vice President Biden said following the announcement. "What we're doing here today will better ensure equal opportunity in athletics, and [allow] women to realize their potential so this nation can realize its potential."
But what happened Tuesday was not a major policy announcement; it was, according to Title IX proponents, an example of addition through subtraction.
What the Department of Education did was withdraw a "clarification" it implemented in 2005 that was promoted as a way to streamline the process by which schools and universities could prove they were complying with Title IX's guarantee of equal sports opportunities for women.
Under the policy, schools could try to show compliance by merely distributing an online survey to female students to gauge interest and ability in sports. Previously, schools had to prove compliance through a number of factors, including requests by students to add sports; participation rates in intramural sports; and interviews with coaches, students and administrators.
The policy made sense to those who had criticized Title IX for becoming a numbers game — schools, in their words, were filling gender quotas, adding female athletes regardless of interest and ability, and in the process squeezing out some of the male sports, such as wrestling and gymnastics. The survey idea was a good way to gauge actual interest levels among girls.
But Title IX supporters blasted the policy on many fronts: They said it was unfair because if someone didn't respond to the survey, it would be counted as a lack of interest.
"Those of us on campus know full well that students don't respond to e-mail surveys," Judy Sweet, NCAA senior vice president for championships and education services, said in 2005.
The policy, with its less rigorous standard, made it too easy for schools to skirt Title IX compliance and, critics maintained, was an example of the Bush administration's backtracking on the federal government's commitment to Title IX.
Now, with a new administration in office, the policy critics have won the day. According to Department of Education spokesman Justin Hamilton, withdrawing the policy largely is symbolic. When it was put in place in 2005, Hamilton says, "it wasn't like girls suddenly stopped dribbling basketballs."
Although there are no firm numbers, it's estimated that only about 15 colleges and universities took advantage of the policy and used the online survey exclusively to prove compliance with Title IX.
Tuesday's announcement, says Hamilton, is a question of fairness. "We don't say you can't use the survey. We're saying you just can't use it alone."
Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, calls the announcement disappointing. Moyer has been outspoken in his criticism of what he calls the Title IX "numbers game." He thinks surveys are a perfectly reasonable way to assess female interest in sports.
Moyer continues to worry about what he calls "the carnage" or elimination that's happening to some men's sports because of current Title IX interpretation. His concern illustrates that despite dropping the 2005 rule, Title IX continues to be a work in progress.
Supporters say Title IX needs to be more comprehensive, because complaints continue to roll in from girls and women who say they aren't getting equal opportunities to participate or are not getting access to the same quality of experiences as male athletes.
According to Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel for the National Women's Law Center, withdrawing the 2005 policy "is a decisive step in the right direction to ensure that women and girls are offered equal opportunities to participate in sports, but there is much more work to do."