From Schools to the Olympics, Women Score New Victories

Forty years after the passage of Title IX, the National Women's Law Center and the Office for Civil Rights are still working to guarantee equal athletic opportunities for girls.

womenstrack_bnr.jpgReuters

Four school districts have agreed to ensure thousands of girls are given equal athletic opportunities after gender discrimination complaints were filed with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights.

Title IX, the 1972 federal law banning gender discrimination in schools, applies to all campuses that receive public funding. In 2010, the National Women's Law Center filed complaints against a dozen districts nationwide alleging that girls were not being given equal opportunities to play sports.

Back in May, I asked Neena Chaudhry, the NWLC's senior counsel for education and employment, how the organization selected the 12 school districts. Chaudhry told me they were chosen not because their Title IX violations were necessarily the most egregious but rather because they were a representative sampling of urban, suburban and rural campuses. By picking a cross-section of districts, the scope of the problem could be better illustrated, Chaudhry said.

The agreements announced Monday by the Education Department were reached with Deer Valley Unified in Phoenix, Ariz., Wake County Public School System in Raleigh, N.C., the Houston Independent School District and Ohio's Columbus City Schools. Eight of the original 12 complaints filed by the NWLC are still pending.

"Even as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, we must still remain vigilant in our efforts to ensure equal opportunity for girls in education," said Russlynn Ali, assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights, in a statement. "The agreements reached in these four cases are representative of the important Title IX work that OCR continues to do, and should provide assurance to the thousands of girls in these school districts and across the nation that fundamental fairness on the playing field and in all areas of education is within their reach. OCR will continue to vigorously work to ensure equal opportunity."

The NWLC, using data submitted by the four school districts to the Education Department, determined there was an 11 to 14 percentage point gap between how many girls were enrolled and the share of athletic opportunities available to them. As part of the agreements, the four districts will conduct assessments to determine how to correct the inequities, including surveying students to identify areas of athletic interest that are not being met, and adding opportunities accordingly.

The announcement of the agreements comes at an interesting time. The London Olympics start later this month, and for the first time the United States' delegation will likely have more females than males. In an interesting twist, the June 23 anniversary date of Title IX is also known as "Olympic Day," marking the start of the modern Olympic Games.

As of Monday, it was expected there would be 10 more women than men among the athletes, although the qualifying events are not yet complete, said Patrick Sandusky, chief communications officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee. Also for the first time, the United States will have women competing in every sport at the Summer Games.

The increase in female athletes is the result of a combination of factors, including new sports for women being added, such as boxing, as well as more events being added to existing competitions including cycling, Sandusky said. Additionally, some women's teams, such as field hockey, qualified for the London Games. At the same time, some of the men's teams that had qualified in the past, such as soccer, fell short this time around.

Adding more spots on the teams is only part of the equation. Girls and women also have to be encouraged and supported in their efforts to reach for those athletic goals. While the playing field isn't yet level, the increase in participation and interest in girls' and women's sports nationally is a direct result of the impact of Title IX.

Regardless of their gender, the overwhelming majority of students will obviously never reach elite athlete status. But that doesn't negate the benefits - academic, social and societal - of playing sports. And it also doesn't undercut the reality that for millions of children, public school athletics programs are often their only opportunity to participate in organized sports of any kind.

"The many benefits of girls' participation in sports go beyond even the playing field and lead to higher academic achievement and graduation rates, lower teenage pregnancy rates, and overall better health," said Marcia D. Greenberger, the NWLC's co-president said in a statement Monday. "Our findings and OCR's investigation underscore the urgency to treating girls fairly and putting these schools on the path toward compliance with Title IX."

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Emily Richmond is the public editor for the National Education Writers Association. She was previously the education reporter for the Las Vegas Sun.

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