One Step Forward

Article excerpt

In many respects, education is more egalitarian now than it was fifteen years ago. Walk into a junior high school and the differences are striking: girls participate in sports that used to be off limits; shop classes are no longer a male domain; and at least some women pictured in textbooks carry wrenches or fire hoses, not laundry. But equity is still a long way off. Although the myth that boys are innately better at science is losing ground, more boys than girls still enroll in advanced math and computer courses. The vast majority of girls in vocational education programs are preparing for traditionally female jobs like nursing or secretarial work. And America's teenage pregnancy rate, the highest in the industrialized world, continues to rise because of Federal hostility to birth-control agencies, local opposition to sex-education programs and the poverty of most young women's options.

If the Reagan Administration persists in the work of its first term, progress toward educational equity may halt altogether. The Administration is systematically undermining Federal laws and programs designed to increase opportunities for girls, particularly Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendment. Title IX declares that "no person...shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." Though it cannot be credited with all the improvements in girls' education, it has played a crucial role. Title IX is directly responsible for the sharp increase in the proportion of women among medical school entrants, from 11 percent in 1972 to 26 percent in 1980. Because of it, guidance counselors must use the same testing procedures for male and female students, and pregnant students can no longer be expelled or excluded from school activities. In athletics Title IX has won dramatic gains for girls. According to the Women's Sports Foundation, there were more than 10,000 college scholarships available to women in 1984 where almost none had existed in 1972. Between 1971 and 1983, the number of girls among high-school athletes rose from 7.5 percent to 34.6 percent.

Even where Title IX has not produced measurable improvements, it has established a framework within which to develop a nondiscriminatory school system. Since the law was passed, some of the country's largest textbook publishers have established equity guidelines, and many school districts have added equity to their criteria for book selection. The law enshrined the principle of equal education for the sexes in national policy and helped bring it into the mainstream culture.

But in the 1984 Supreme Court case Grove City College v. Bell, the Administration argued successfully that Title ix can be applied only to specific programs funded by the Federal government, not throughout the institutions that carry them. The Court's ruling reversed a longstanding government position, supported by Republican and Democratic Administration alike, and reopened the way to blatantly discriminatory practices. Within a week of the decision the Department of Education began closing its files on pending discrimination cases, even though no new policy regulations had been drawn up. The National Women's Law Center estimates that at least sixty-three such cases have either been dropped or put on hold.

Reagan and company have also put considerable time and effort into gutting the eleven-year-old Women's Educational Equity Act program (WEEA). WEEA studies issues affecting women's education, channels grant money to model programs designed to study and eliminate sexism in schools, and develops and distributes nonsexist teaching materials. …