While President Reagan is preoccupied with international crises, his New Right appointees in the Department of Education are quietly getting away with mischief that will give the Democrats wonderful ammunition to fire into the gender gap.
In the weeks immediately preceding the Korean airline crash, the president toured the country citing his administration's accomplishments on behalf of women. At the American Bar Association meeting in Atlanta, for example, he pledged to "assure that every woman has an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream."
The connection between education and achieving the American dream is well-established. But while President Reagan was saying one thing, his appointees were doing the exact opposite. They were busily carrying out a right-wing vendetta against the only federal program that helps schools and universities give girls and women the same opportunities in education that boys and men have.
Under the guise of a reorganization, Reagan appointees have downgraded the Women's Educational Equity Act program from its place near the top of the Education Department bureaucracy to one near the bottom of it. Five of the seven staff members who worked in the $5.5 million-a-year program have been RIFfed, including Dr. Leslie Wolfe, the program director who was the target of a particularly virulent attack in the Conservative Digest. All five were women. The two people who were not RIFfed are men. They, it is worth noting, were protected by veterans preference."WEEA is one of the most cost-effective programs in government," says Dr. Bernice Sandler, head of the Project on the Status and Education of Women of the Association of American Colleges. "All of the programs must be replicable. These programs don't push anybody. They encourage the schools to be fair and to give maximum opportunities for all of their students."
The Project on the Status and Education of Women, for example, received a WEEA grant to study the awarding of campus prizes--which are important in getting jobs and into graduate school--and it developed suggestions about how institutions and foundations can make sure that both men and women students get equal consideration. "We were able to point out things that people were inadvertently doing," Sandler says. "A lot of discrimination is not overt."
WEEA has also given grants to develop manuals for training rural women, for career planning for minority women, for guiding women reentering the job market, and to help women in vocational education programs, in gifted and talented programs and in bilingual educational programs.
WEEA was targeted in the Heritage Foundation's "Mandate for Leadership," which labeled it a haven "for extreme feminist ideology." The editor of the Heritage Report, Charles Heatherly, subsequently became deputy undersecretary for management of the Department of Education, and he has engineered the reorganization.
In April of 1982, the Conservative Digest printed an anonymous article, purportedly written by a "concerned employee in the Education Department," that accused the program of funding "hard-left women's groups" and attacked Wolfe, labeling her a "radical feminist." Within two weeks Wolfe was transferred out of her job and an important part of the grant selection process for 1982 was taken over by a Reagan administration appointee. This produced an outcry among women's groups and in Congress and Wolfe was later reinstated. Congress has also repeatedly rescued WEEA from administration efforts to kill it by taking away its funding. But this time the program's staunch supporters on the Hill have been unable to block the reorganization that takes its staff and expertise away.
On Aug. 16, RIF notices were sent out affecting WEEA and four other programs, abolishing more than 100 positions, including that of WEEA director. Wolfe, a GS 15, who has been in the civil service 10 years, will be out of a job on Friday.
At the same time the president was trying to mend fences with female voters, his administration abandoned broad enforcement of Title IX, the only law that protects women from discrimination in education, and his appointees gutted the only federal program that promotes equity in education. There is a lesson in this for voters who care about the commitment President Reagan and his aides have toward women.
Watch what they do, not what they say.