Each day this week, Amicus will feature an editorial post written by one of CRCL’s new General Board members. Today’s post discusses the effects of the ongoing underenforcement of Title IX.

On the eve of Title IX’s fortieth anniversary, news of the federal government’s failure to meaningfully enforce the law’s provisions is troubling. Enacted in 1972, Title IX forbids sex discrimination in all schools that accept federal funds. The law has become nearly synonymous with gender equality in athletics, the area in which its provisions have had the most impact. However, as the New York Times reported last month, the Office for Civil Rights (OCR), charged with enforcing Title IX, has grown lax in initiating its own investigations in recent years. Instead the office routinely allows schools to conduct their own investigations and create their own strategies to solve internal problems of sex discrimination. Unsurprisingly, this policy has been ineffective in inspiring change. According to Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, “many schools are getting away with providing less opportunities to girls because they don’t do what they’re supposed to unless made to.”

OCR must overhaul its enforcement efforts if the progress that Title IX has made in expanding women’s rights is to continue. No one disputes that Title IX has already accomplished a great deal in the fight for gender equality. The number of female high school athletes has increased by 940% since the passage of Title IX. The number of female varsity college athletes has increased by more than 450%. Indeed, recent studies have shown that Title IX has had a direct impact on women’s education and employment. One study, conducted at the University of Pennsylvania, found that changes set in motion by Title IX explained 20% of the increase in women’s education and about 40% of the rise in employment for 25-to-34-year-old women. Even more importantly, Title IX has given all women, not just athletes, the opportunity and the confidence to chase dreams and succeed in careers once thought to be a man’s domain.

But such accomplishments are threatened by the current underenforcement of Title IX. Underenforcement has plagued past struggles for civil rights. For example, although Brown v. Board of Education guaranteed all schoolchildren the right to attend desegregated schools, the Supreme Court’s vague “with all deliberate speed” timetable and the political branches’ unwillingness to quickly implement the law led to years of delay. Indeed, enforcement problems with school desegregation continue to this day, as evidenced, for example, by the federal courts’ recent takeover of the Tuscon, Arizona school system.

In order to truly fulfill the purpose of Title IX, OCR must seriously investigate potential violations. There is evidence that reform is underway. Since President Obama appointed Russlynn Ali to head OCR, the office has become more aggressive in initiating investigations and taking on powerful schools. Janet Judge, a lawyer specializing in Title IX, said she had noticed a difference since Ali’s arrival. “Enforcement is at the highest level I’ve seen in my almost 20 years of Title IX practice,” she said. Only a continued commitment to enforcement will ensure that the movement toward gender equality marches forward.