Education

Education Dept. E-Mail Survey Sparks Title IX Debate

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Advocates for women's sports say a new Education Department survey will harm Title IX legislation. The administration says the new e-mail survey will help schools gauge interest in women's sports and allocate resources. But critics worry the survey will be ineffective — and do more harm than good.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Supporters of Title IX say it's under attack. That 1972 law, among other things, bans sex discrimination in school athletics. Title IX proponents worry that a recent Department of Education proposal could mean fewer girls and women get the opportunity to play organized sports. Here's NPR's Tom Goldman.

TOM GOLDMAN reporting:

It seems laughable to say a significant landmark law like Title IX could be threatened by something as mundane as e-mail until you talk to Donna Lopiano, chief executive officer for the Women's Sports Foundation.

Ms. DONNA LOPIANO (Chief Executive Officer, Women's Sports Foundation): It's all laughable because the law has been working well. Women's sport opportunities have grown steadily. It's not broken. This is not an attempted fix. This is knocking one of the wheels off.

GOLDMAN: This is a recent proposal by the Department of Education to let schools use an e-mail survey to determine if they're complying with Title IX law. One of the ways to check Title IX compliance is to measure female interest in sports and then see if their school is providing the opportunities to meet that interest. In the past, some schools have used surveys to measure interest, but according to the Education Department, the surveys generally haven't worked. Typically, questionnaires were just left in a public place and many weren't filled out. So in March, a letter went out to schools nationwide proposing a simple and streamlined e-mail survey. The department says it alone will do what others haven't, accurately measure interest in sports so a school can accurately measure whether it's complying with Title IX. Susan Aspey is a spokeswoman for the Education Department.

Ms. SUSAN ASPEY (Spokeswoman, Department of Education): The onus is on the schools to show that they have gotten the word out about this survey. They can't just, you know, haphazardly send out, you know, a mass e-mail to students, and then, you know, if nobody responds, then, `Hey, you know, we've done our part.' That doesn't cut it.

Professor DON SABO (Data Researcher): Their intentions may be good, but the methods they've unfurled are flawed.

GOLDMAN: First, says sociology professor and data researcher Don Sabo, e-mail surveys generally don't get a lot of responses. Second, Sabo and other Title IX supporters are especially worried about what the Education Department proposal says about students who don't respond to the e-mail survey. Those students are counted as not being interested in sports. University of Oregon Professor Kim Sheehan has done extensive research on e-mail surveys. She's not a public advocate for Title IX but still has trouble with the no response equals no interest part of the proposal.

Professor KIM SHEEHAN (University of Oregon): I think right now they're setting up the survey to show results that students are not interested in athletics.

GOLDMAN: That's exactly what Title IX proponents suspect. The department wants to skew results in a way that'll show fewer numbers of women interested in sports, thereby allowing schools to offer minimal opportunities to which Susan Aspey of the Education Department says poppycock. There's no anti-Title IX plot in the federal government, she says, and the e-mail surveys can work if schools follow what Aspey says are detailed instructions laid out in the 177-page letter of guidance.

Ms. ASPEY: Here we are. We've developed a scientifically sound survey that schools don't even have to use if they don't want to and yet, you know, we have an outcry of, you know, I think one could make a good argument is pretty much special interest hyperbole.

GOLDMAN: Aspey acknowledges the NCAA is not a special interest group. College sports governing body passed a resolution late last month urging the Department of Education to rescind the e-mail survey proposal. Aspey says the department has no such plan.

Tom Goldman, NPR News.

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