(WOMENSENEWS)--As schools open for another academic year, women's advocates say a controversial policy change in 2005 by the U.S. Department of Education has been widely disregarded by U.S. colleges to determine gender equality in sports.
The policy change--which the government termed a clarification--allows schools to use an e-mail survey as an exclusive gauge of female college athletes' satisfaction, which critics say creates a loophole to avoid the requirements of Title IX, the 1972 federal law mandating that any education program receiving federal funds must provide equal opportunities to both genders.
But even though schools may not be widely relying on an e-mail survey to assess female students' satisfaction with sports opportunities, advocates say the policy should be reversed because it leaves Title IX vulnerable to erosion.
"The consensus was that the survey was invalid and should not be used to assess Title IX," Donna Lopiano, executive director of the New York-based Women's Sports Foundation, told Women's eNews.
Lopiano says she knows of only five or six schools that intend to use the survey as their only tool to assess the future and direction of Title IX.
The survey has been used by schools since 1992 as a tool for gauging interest in women's sports, but it wasn't until last year that the government elevated its status as a way for schools to prove their compliance with the federal guarantee of gender equality in sports.
Survey Could Be Mistaken for Spam
The e-mail goes only to female students and surveys their current sports participation, future interests and ability to participate at the level of indicated interest. Critics say that students can easily mistake the e-mail as electronic junk mail.
When students delete, filter or fail to respond to the survey, administrators can construe that as indifference, which could lead to funding cuts for women's programs.
"We should be trying to encourage, not diminish, a program that helps women build confidence, stay away from drugs and drives down teen pregnancy rates," Congresswoman Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., told Women's eNews. "Spam is not an effective law enforcement tool and female athletes are going to lose out as a result."
Maloney in June asked Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings to reconsider what the government in March 2005 called a policy "clarification" on the federal legislation guaranteeing gender equality in sports.
Maloney has requested a report on the policy change from the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The Women's Sports Foundation and other groups have been lobbying to reverse the policy.
The Department of Education maintains that the burden is on the school to follow up with students who do not respond.
David Black, deputy assistant secretary of the Education Department's Office for Civil Rights, which oversees Title IX, dismisses charges that the e-mail surveys will be filtered as spam. "The survey is coming from an official university e-mail address. There are a lot of protections set up to make sure students fill it out," Black says.
In 1979, the government devised three options for testing schools' Title IX compliance and a school is only required to meet one of these tests.
The first test measures whether male and female athletes are substantially proportionate to a school's enrollment. The second measures whether a school has a history and continuing practice of expanding opportunities for female students.
The third test is the one affected by the e-mail survey. This test is whether the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex have been fully and effectively accommodated by the school's present program.
Schools Obligated to Respond
If surveys indicate that there is unmet interest, schools are obliged to respond to that unmet interest by, for instance, adding a varsity volleyball team or enhancing funding to a team already formed.
Maloney calls on the Department of Education "to go back to the way it used to measure women's interest in sport: by actually taking the time to talk to women, their parents and their coaches."
Maloney sees the Bush administration's Title IX policy change as part of a larger strategy to chew away at women's rights. "There is an entire conservative movement that wants to push women down and back," she said. "I think the Bush Administration has become more sophisticated in their attacks. The court and floor attacks have failed, so they have resorted to this sneaky way."
Lindsey Affolter, a recent graduate of the University of Florida and a former member of the school's Division I soccer team, said the survey passed her by in the spring of 2005, while other members of her school's basketball team did receive it.
Despite missing the e-mail, Affolter says the University of Florida has been vigilant about meeting her needs. "You are never without meals, you are never without tutors, whatever it is you need, you express it, and something is done about it."
Affolter, however, said she would not want her school to interpret her non-response as a lack of interest, since she supports an expansion of athletic opportunities for female students.
Courtney McVicker, a former member of the crew team at Ithaca College, a Division III school, believes the problem with the survey was in the outreach. "Going after student athletes with e-mail is not a good way to reach them. They are going to be the busiest segment of the student body, and probably the least likely to use their e-mail."
Few Have Seen the Survey
While some students who received the survey may have found it acceptable, Claire Pogue, a junior at Georgetown University, former member of the school's Division I golf team and the only young woman interviewed for this article who actually saw the survey, says it struck her as "lazy."
"As opposed to working toward a progressive solution toward Title IX, they were just trying to find an easy way to reform the legislation, and it's going to be the female athletes who are going to suffer," she says.
Female Division I athletes receive 41 percent of the opportunities to play intercollegiate sports and male athletes receive 59 percent of the opportunities, according to the Women's Sports Foundation. Women receive 43 percent of the total athletic scholarship dollars, 36 percent of the athletic operating budgets and 32 percent of the dollars spent to recruit new athletes.
"Title IX has suffered more close encounters than most legislation," says Richard Lapchick, who publishes annual studies in coaching and sport management, student-athlete graduation rates and racial attitudes in sports as the director of the Devos Sport Business Management Program at the University of Central Florida. "We publish the racial and gender report card, and have found that any time there is not pressure there is an erosion of the numbers."
Lapchick believes that a punitive system is the only way that athletic departments will comply with Title IX. "Schools need to feel the threat of sanctions and gender equity violation. It's all about pressure."
Before the passage of Title IX, 1 in 27 women and girls participated in athletics programs; today, the ratio is 1 in 3. Participation in women's sports programs has increased 875 percent in high schools and 437 percent in colleges since 1972, according to Maloney's office.
Hannah Seligson is a freelance writer based in New York. Her book, "New Girl on the Job," will be published by Citadel Press in 2007.
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For more information:
Women's Sports Foundation:
National Women's Law Center: Athletics:
Save Title IX:
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