Thursday, February 27, 2003

Title IX overhaul dead



WASHINGTON - Swiftly and surprisingly, Education Secretary Rod Paige said Wednesday he would not consider many of the controversial changes proposed for Title IX, the law requiring equal sports opportunities for men and women.

Paige said he would only consider recommendations that drew unanimous support from his Commission on Opportunity in Athletics. That would kill at least eight of the 23 ideas, including ones that would change how schools can show they don't discriminate.

Paige, who had not set a timetable for any decisions, took action within hours of receiving the commission's report. His move came on a day when critics trumpeted their minority views, and commission leaders defended their work as thoughtful, fair and overdue.

"This report includes several recommendations unanimously agreed upon by all of the commissioners in public meetings," Paige said in a statement late Wednesday.

"I am pleased that the commission, made up of a diverse group of individuals with vastly different points of view, was able to agree on some important recommendations, and the department intends to move forward only on those recommendations," he said.

In a Title IX debate often marked by confusion, Paige's comments created a bit more as observers tried to assess exactly what he meant. Education Department spokesman John Gibbons confirmed Paige will only consider unanimous votes, not ones approved with lesser support.

Otherwise, education officials let Paige's statement speak for itself.

"This reflects how much of an outcry there has been, and how important it is for there to be a spotlight on what happens next," said Marcia Greenberger, president of the National Women's Law Center, which has opposed changing Title IX enforcement.

Among the ideas to be scrapped by Paige's move:

- Allowing schools to measure sports participation in new ways, such as excluding non-scholarship athletes from counts or including available roster slots even if they're not used.

- Giving schools more leeway to accept private sports money, which proponents said could keep teams afloat but critics said would amount to slush funds for men's sports.

- Letting schools exclude older, "nontraditional" students from their counts based on a view that they are less likely to participate in sports. Some commissioners disputed this.

The Title IX debate has grown intense in recent weeks, putting increasing focus on how Paige would respond. By embracing only the most palatable proposals, he may defuse some of the opposition's momentum, but leading critics were wary at best.

One of the remaining suggestions, for example, says Paige's department should explore ways for schools to prove they don't discriminate.

"That last one is so wide open, it gives them license to do anything. It basically brings all the other ones back into play," said Julie Foudy, one of two commission members to balk at the group's report. She voted for the recommendation but withdrew her support after seeing how it appeared in the final report.

Paige also risks grumbles from other commission members who, through majority votes, worked for months on ideas that now may go nowhere. Earlier in the day, commission co-chairs Ted Leland and Cynthia Cooper spoke with pride about all of the recommendations.

They rejected doomsday claims, saying women athletes will be better off with new enforcement.

"I myself am a product of Title IX, and I have benefited from the law," said Cooper, a basketball player. "So I would never do anything that would possibly weaken the law or set back the progress that women have made."

Paige focused on four unanimous ideas: reaffirming a commitment to equal opportunity for men and women, aggressively enforcing the equity law, giving equal weight to each of the three ways schools can show compliance and making clear that the Education Department disapproves of cutting teams as part of Title IX.

Some schools contend they've had no choice but to trim programs to bring their offerings for men in line with those for women. Such concerns led to a lawsuit against the Education Department that still stands.

The commission's message of consensus took a hit when two of its three marquee athletes, Foudy and former Olympic swimmer Donna de Varona, refused to embrace the report. Famous athletes, actors and Democratic senators have rallied behind the cause to "Save Title IX."

Leland and Cooper said they found that push perplexing. There is no effort to change the law itself, and giving schools more ways to comply won't hurt women, they said.




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