Phila. Court’s Ruling Admits Girls To Single-Sex H.S.

By Patricia Ford — September 07, 1983 4 min read
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A Philadelphia Common Pleas Court judge has ordered that three female students be admitted to the city’s elite all-male Central High School, the nation’s second-oldest public high school, established in 1836.

Judge William M. Marutani ruled last week that “the maintenance of single-gender public schools ... is in violation of the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment” and is “in violation of Article I, Section 28, of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” the state’s equal-rights amendment.

Judge Marutani’s long-awaited decision came in a class-action suit brought by Elizabeth Newberg, Pauline H. King, and Jessica S. Bonn, three students at the all-female Girls High school, which is across the street from Central High School. The students contended that they had been denied admission to Central solely on the basis of their sex.

The school district has not yet decided whether to appeal the ruling. Superintendent of Schools Constance Clayton said she will request a special meeting of the school board as soon as possible to discuss the matter.

Ms. Clayton, an alumna of Girls High, declined further comment. However, when she was appointed last October, Ms. Clayton said she was not opposed to a merger of Girls and Central.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Arthur H. Bryant of the American Civil Liberties Union, said he thinks female enrollment would offer Central the chance to “improve in virtually every respect.” He said that was the result when Boston Latin High School, the nation’s oldest public high school, began to admit girls in 1975.

Both Schools May Suffer

However, Horace Stern, president of Central’s alumni association, and Rujean Mitinger of the Girls’ Parent-Teacher-Daughter Association, said they thought both schools would suffer as a result of coeducation.

Attorneys for the school district never disputed that sex had been the sole reason for denying the plaintiffs entrance to Central, but they argued that, overall, the two schools provided equal educational opportunities for both sexes.

They also argued that students at both schools benefited from having the option of single-gender education. Central and Girls are the only single-sex public schools in Philadelphia and two of the few left in the country.

However, in his decision, Judge Marutani said, “Educational opportunities provided to the students at Girls High are not equal to those available to students at Central High.”

The school district lost a similar case, Vorchheimer v. School District of Philadelphia, heard in federal court in 1975.

It appealed that decision and won in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit. The appeals-court ruling was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The higher courts in the Vorchheimer case ruled only on the Fourteenth Amendment claim against the school district. The trial judge had refused to accept jurisdiction for claims under the Pennsylvania constitution’s equal-rights amendment, saying that “standards governing the applicability of this amendment in the educational field have not been clearly established by the state courts.” Judge Marutani’s decision is the first that applies the state equal-rights amendment to education.

Judge Marutani’s ruling appears to be a new victory for the women’s groups that have been seeking to test the applicability of such state laws.

Pennsylvania’s equal-rights amendment had figured in another single-sex-school case brought in Philadelphia last year.

In that case, the Women’s Law Center and the National Organization for Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund successfully argued in the city’s Orphans Court that Girard College, a school for poor boys established in the 19th century under a trust, must admit girls in light of the amendment.

The two organizations also supported the plaintiffs in the Central case, calling their actions part of a national effort to use state equal-rights amendments to further equity for women in education. (See Education Week, Sept. 8, 1982, and Feb. 2, 1983.)

Inequities Not Illuminated

The judge said many of the inequities between Girls High and Central had not been illuminated in the earlier Vorchheimer case, among them the fact that Central’s campus is almost three times larger than Girls’, although Girls has 12 percent more students; that Central’s library is almost twice as large as Girls’, with 50,000 books, compared to Girls’ 26,300; that Central has almost three times as many Ph.D.s on its faculty; and that Central offers more mathematics and makes physical education optional.

In addition, Judge Marutani noted, “graduates of Central High are awarded ‘Bachelor of Arts’ degrees, whereas Girls High graduates receive high school diplomas.”

The ‘Bachelor Degrees’ are just one tradition of a tradition-steeped school that has produced some of the city’s most distinguished citizens. Mr. Stern of Central’s alumni association said he would rather see it remain as it is. But he added, “If this is going to happen, Central will survive. It will be a good school. But neither [Girls or Central] will be able to offer the advantages they did as single-sex schools.”

“They have allowed young people to develop socially, emotionally, and physically, along with intellectual growth, at a rate they were pleased with,” said Ms. Mitenger of the Girls High association.

“They liked to have this option. They will be disappointed this option no longer exists.”

A version of this article appeared in the September 07, 1983 edition of Education Week as Phila. Court’s Ruling Admits Girls To Single-Sex H.S.


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