House Republicans are trying to eliminate a 25-year-old program aimed at promoting girls' education in elementary and high schools, arguing that the effort has outlived its usefulness.
Under the Women's Educational Equity Act, the federal government provides teaching materials, projects and programs to schools to eliminate gender bias. The government has also permitted states and localities to use federal money for programs encouraging girls to pursue careers and advanced degrees in math, science, engineering and technology.
These initiatives would be scrapped under a massive bill coming to the House floor this week that would reauthorize a slew of federal programs concerning the education of poor and disadvantaged children. Republicans said such efforts are no longer necessary, and that boys need just as much help as girls.
"It's served its purpose in its time, and we're long past that," said Rep. Marge Roukema (R-N.J.), a moderate who serves on the Education and Workforce Committee. "I think gender equity has been accomplished."
But many Democrats, along with such groups as the American Association of University Women, argue that discrimination still exists and teachers need to be reminded of the importance of encouraging girls to participate in such fields as math and computer science.
"It's just to balance the scales," said Rep. Patsy Mink (D-Hawaii), who has written an amendment to restore the program when the House considers the issue today.
Mink said that the federal government spends only $500,000 on the equity act, funding a two-person center that compiles statistics on gender bias and distributes teaching material.
"All the records, all the years of work will be gone" if the program is eliminated, Mink said. "It's not like it's costing zillions of dollars."
But Republicans said the money could be better spent on classroom activities. "The language was removed because the majority on the committee did not want to target special groups," said Education and Workforce Committee spokeswoman Becky Campoverde. "They believe the purpose of the legislation is to help all children who need assistance."
Democrats offered three amendments in committee last week aimed at restoring the gender equity provisions, all of which failed in votes largely along party lines. The Senate has yet to consider the issue, although Sen. James M. Jeffords (R-Vt.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee, plans to try to preserve the women's equity act.
The Independent Women's Action Project, a conservative women's group, has circulated a letter on Capitol Hill urging lawmakers to resist restoring the language, arguing that it allows gender equity specialists "to search for discrimination or problems that may not actually exist" and that boys are actually behind girls in such areas as reading.
A coalition of 55 groups ranging from the American Civil Liberties Union to the Girl Scouts of the United States of America have sent a competing letter, saying the gender equity programs would help "ensure girls succeed in school."