A new Pennsylvania law requires high schools to report on athletic opportunities for girls

The football field at New Hope-Solebury High. Chris Flynn asked why girls did not have field hockey facilities just as good.
The football field at New Hope-Solebury High. Chris Flynn asked why girls did not have field hockey facilities just as good. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 23, 2012

When her daughter Kelly joined the field hockey team at New Hope-Solebury High School in 2006, Chris Flynn noticed the field.

The surface was dirt and dead grass. No restrooms, no scoreboard, no place to sit.

A few hundred yards away stood the boys' gleaming stadium field, with lighting, bleachers, restrooms, even a concession stand.

Flynn did not understand why girls' teams couldn't use that field, especially when there were no scheduling conflicts and it sat empty.

That started her on a six-year struggle to level the playing field for girl athletes.

"I was just a parent," said Flynn, a special-needs aide in neighboring Central Bucks schools. "But I saw the inequities, and every time I approached the school district we were stonewalled."

By coincidence, the same issue was troubling an upstate legislator who once played basketball in bloomers.

Now, a law signed by Gov. Corbett this month aims to help achieve equity for young female athletes as mandated by a decades-old federal law. For the first time, the state's 500 school districts will have to submit full reports on athletic opportunities - on who participates and how much is spent on sports across the board.

Pennsylvania becomes the fourth state, after Georgia, Kentucky and New Mexico, to require such reporting, 40 years after the passage of Title IX, the federal law mandating equity in sports and academics at all schools receiving federal money.

Under the state's new law, school districts will have to file annual reports starting in 2013 detailing how boys' and girls' sports opportunities match up in middle and high schools, including numbers of participants and teams, coaches and trainers' compensation, and spending on equipment, travel and uniforms.

Districts are to share the information with communities, and the state will publish the reports online. Guidelines for enforcing the law have not yet been written.

In the flurry of Title IX news coverage during this anniversary year, the federal law is being celebrated for its transformative effect on academics and athletics. Mandating equal access in schools has boosted participation by girls and women in science and technology programs and spurred an explosion in the number of girls' and women's teams.

But while companion federal legislation in 1994 required colleges to report on their athletics, secondary schools faced no such requirement.

"Schools need to be held accountable for complying with Title IX. They haven't done it on their own," said Terry Fromson, managing lawyer with the Philadelphia-based Women's Law Project, which filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education in the interest of girls in in the New Hope-Solebury district.

While the education department's Office of Civil Rights provides some measure of enforcement, Fromson said sometimes the key is raising the issue and pressing a school to comply.

Or agitating in Harrisburg, as State Sen. Mary Jo White did in two legislative sessions without success.

"There was a feeling that 'if you put the information out there, someone is going to sue us,' " White (R., Venango) said. "But parents don't want to sue. They want to know if a school district can't [offer equal athletic opportunities] because of resources, then at least they have a plan to improve."

The 70-year-old lawmaker, who is retiring this year, recalls playing basketball in bloomers, six to a side, in her native Chicago - half-court only. Girls were considered too frail to go full court.

White said she introduced her bill in 2009 amid overwhelming evidence of the long-term value of athletics for girls: They are more likely to stay in school, stay healthier, and achieve more in life. She had also learned that many Pennsylvania schools lagged.

"We were asking questions that 40 years later shouldn't even be around," she said. "There are regions where girls' athletics is a priority. But some districts may be surprised at how bad they're doing."

On June 30, her long-stalled proposal cascaded through as an amendment to the state school code, in the wave of bills passed just before legislators' summer break.

Some school officials say they have not received word of the new law. Others say they already report such data. The West Chester Area School District "feels very comfortable with disclosure for Title IX because we've already done that for our community," spokesman Rob Partridge said.

The Philadelphia district "will continue to ensure that there are equitable athletic opportunities," spokeswoman Deirdre Darragh said. She said two district officials recently served on an advisory panel on gender equity in athletics and know of the law.

The superintendent of Upper Darby's cash-strapped district called the law an "unfunded mandate" that may require either hiring more staff or adding to duties of already overburdened personnel.

"Its intent is great," Louis DeVlieger said. "But there is the practicality of funding. I think it's somewhat onerous."

The New Hope-Solebury district has been tussling with federal education officials since 2008, when the Womens Law Project complaint was filed. Under a 2011 agreement, the district was to offer equitable numbers of sports team opportunities and equal access to facilities - such as the stadium field.

In April, federal officials wrote to say those conditions weren't being met. The letter noted a 10.5 percent gap in the 2010-11 school year between girls' enrollment and their athletic participation, a greater expansion of athletic opportunities for boys than for girls, and no plan to expand girls' opportunities.

Superintendent Raymond Boccuti told the school board at a meeting last Monday that the district would "ensure facilities with amenities will be provided to both sexes equally during the 2012-2013 school year," according to minutes posted online.

Boccuti said plans for the fall include circulating a student athlete interest survey - and scheduling girls' field hockey games on the stadium field.

The district's lawyer, John E. Freund III, said the student survey is part of administrators' efforts to live up to the agreement reached last year with federal officials. "We are trying to satisfy them," he said last week.

Flynn, whose daughter is now a college senior, is hopeful the new law and the steps taken by the district show the tide is turning. "I knew it wasn't about fixing one thing, that there would have to be a change in the culture," she said.

White, winding down a 16-year career in state politics, predicted the law "will have a lasting effect."

"I have a granddaughter who has opportunities," she said. "I want all girls in the commonwealth to have those same experiences."

Contact Amy Worden

at 717-783-2584 aworden@phillynews.com or follow @inkyamy on Twitter.

Staff writer Kristen Graham contributed to this article.

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