WHAT MESSAGE is the Bush administration trying to send about women in sports? At the same time that it supported an important extension of Title IX - the 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded schools and colleges - to cover whistleblowers, it seems to want to undermine enforcement. The Department of Education posted a surprise notice on its Web site last month that was called a "clarification" of how schools can demonstrate that they are following the law. Instead of clarity, however, the department has generated unnecessary confusion and could threaten 30 years of progress in expanding athletic opportunities for young women.
Schools that are covered under Title IX can meet one of three standards to show compliance with the law: The number of male and female athletes is in proportion with the overall student body; the school has a history of providing opportunities for women to participate in sports; or the school is effectively responding to the interests of its female students. Proof of the third standard required schools to measure athletic interest among female students through surveys and other ways, including looking at their participation in sports in their previous middle schools or high schools, or whether they played in other intramural leagues or clubs.
Last month's clarification purports to update the third standard by allowing schools to canvass their female students simply through Web-based surveys and e-mails. Students who fail to respond would be considered uninterested. The department insists that the change does not reflect any policy reversal or weakening of the law. But a similar proposal was rejected in 2003. Since then, leadership of the department has changed from Rod Paige to Margaret Spellings.
Advocates for women's sports, including the head of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, fear that computer surveys won't provide reliable measures of young women's interest in sports and, as a result, could slow progress under Title IX. Schools that find it hard to show compliance under the proportionality standard because of increasing numbers of female students may opt for the survey standard to prove lack of interest. Ms. Spellings, who has shown welcome flexibility in other areas, should reconsider, and make it clear that her department stands squarely behind young female athletes.