The November elections will be the first opportunity for voters to register their thoughts on the conservative mandate President Reagan claims he got when he was elected. His record on affirmative action, school prayer and antiabortion measures are well known. Less well known is his administration's treatment of activities designed to promote equal education opportunities for women and girls.
Last week, Barbara Stein, chairman of the National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education, announced the formation of a Shadow Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs to monitor the administration.
"At a time when poverty is being identified increasingly as a female syndrome," she said, "with six times as many female-headed households as male-headed households falling below the poverty line, it is unconscionable that the government would condone discrimination in the main route out of economic dependency -- education and career training."
Yet the administration has weakened efforts to achieve educational equity on several important fronts. It has refused to appeal a federal court decision, in the University of Richmond v. Bell, that prohibits the Education Department from enforcing civil rights regulations in intercollegiate athletic programs that do not receive direct federal funding. Despite a warning from the assistant secretary of education for civil rights that the ruling would foreclose civil rights action in virtually all cases involving discrimination in athletics, and that it jeopardizes the enforcement of laws against discrimination in education, the Reagan Justice Department failed to appeal it.
The administration has put programs designed to promote educational equity in the hands of conservatives and New Right activists, including members of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum, which has adamantly opposed the women's liberation movement.
The National Advisory Council on Women's Educational Programs, which overseas the Women's Educational Equity Act program, is now dominated by conservative Republican women who promptly fired the council's highly respected executive director, Joy Simonson, and replaced her with a leader of Illinois' Eagle Forum, Rosemary Thomsen. In April, Thomsen urged Congress not to even fund WEEA.
When the advisory council held its first meeting since the director's firing this week, it was evident that the council is handicapped by the inexperience of its members and of Thomsen. Thomsen, at one point, even suggested that the council might want to place WEEA funds under the block grant program. At that point, two persons who had opposed the Simonson firing pointed out that advisory panels can't do that.
The council then heard a report on past WEEA funding prepared by Shirley Curry, an accountant from Tennessee, hired for about $6,000 by Thomsen, who acknowledged later that Curry was also a member of Eagle Forum. Curry visibly antagonized the small moderate faction on the council with a report that dwelt on population distribution of past WEEA grants, when there is no requirement for WEEA grants to be distributed on that basis. Members of the moderate faction termed the report superfluous. When Curry proceeded to tick off names of people and organizations that had received more than one grant in the past, Gilda Bojorquez-Gjurich, a Republican builder from California, accused her of casting "terrible aspersions."
The next day the council voted unanimously to recommend to the Education Department that half the WEEA grants go to graduating senior high school girls to study math and science.
Bernice Sandler, one of the drafters of the Educational Equity Act, who was appointed the council's first chairman by President Ford and reappointed by President Carter, says the act is supposed to fund pilot projects that ultimately can benefit thousands of women, not to provide scholarships benefiting individuals. While Thomsen says she saw no problem with scholarships limited strictly to girls, Sandler cites part of the act that specifically forbids any discrimination against men or boys in administration of the programs.
Advisory councils are plums for the party faithful. They don't enforce, they recommend. But this council's actions, combined with the administration's unwillingness to pursue vigorous enforcement of antidiscrimination legislation, suggest that the federal commitment to educational equity will be far different from what American women have seen in the recent past.