Equity & Diversity

Educators Debate Impact of Ruling on Single-Sex Classes

By Mark Walsh — July 10, 1996 7 min read


When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled late last month on the constitutionality of the Virginia Military Institute’s all-male enrollment policy, educators in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Irvington, N.J., had reason to stand at attention.

The cities aren’t home to men’s military colleges. But public schools in West Des Moines, Irvington, and other districts around the country have experimented with single-sex classrooms, academies, and after-school programs. And the proponents of the idea hoped that the high court’s VMI ruling would leave some room for such experimentation.

Whether it did is a matter of debate.

By a 7-1 vote, the court on June 26 ruled that VMI’s all-male policy violates the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection of the law. The 157-year-old, state-funded college in Lexington, Va., must begin admitting women or else become private. School officials are studying their options.

Justice Antonin Scalia, the lone dissenter in the case of United States v. Virginia (Case No. 94-1941), bitterly complained that the majority’s ruling means that single-sex programs, including those in K-12 schools, are “functionally dead.”

“The enemies of single-sex education have won,” he added.

However, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the author of the majority opinion, suggested that the ruling was about VMI alone and not about other single-sex programs.

“We do not question the state’s prerogative evenhandedly to support diverse educational opportunities,” she wrote in a footnote. “We address specifically and only an educational opportunity recognized [by lower courts] as unique.”

Maine to California

The case was watched by educators because a number of school districts have proposed or launched a variety of single-sex programs, ranging from special mathematics classes for girls to academies tailored to urban boys.

Proponents say the programs help overcome certain obstacles faced by boys or girls and allow them to achieve in a more focused environment. Critics maintain that these programs not only run afoul of the Constitution and federal anti-discrimination law, but also are educationally unsound because they perpetuate stereotypes or falsely attribute academic gains to gender separation.

Among the recent experiments:

*Seven years ago in Presque Isle, Maine, public educators started what are believed to be the first separate math classes for girls designed to address their underachievement in the subject.

Like others that would follow, the all-girls classes were challenged based on Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972--the federal law that bars sex discrimination in schools that receive federal aid. But rather than drop the program altogether, school officials nominally opened the classes to boys and renamed the “All-Girls Algebra I” to “Algebra I with an Emphasis on Women’s Contributions in Mathematics.”

*In 1991, Detroit school officials proposed three all-male academies to serve the needs of African-American boys. Civil rights groups sued on behalf of girls, and a federal judge issued an injunction saying the program was a violation of Title IX. (See Education Week, Sept. 4, 1991.)

The school board chose not to push for the idea in further court proceedings, but it effectively kept a form of the program alive by opening the academies to girls while keeping the focus on African-American boys.

*In Ventura, Calif., three years ago, school officials began experimenting with classes for “math phobic” girls to see if more would continue to advanced mathematics courses. Hit by a legal challenge, the district opened the classes to boys and renamed them Math PLUS (Power Learning for Underrepresented Students).

Good estimates of how many single-sex programs are being tried are hard to come by. Many educators want to avoid publicity, and thus legal challenges. A recent report from the General Accounting Office, the investigative agency of Congress, cited numerous examples of single-sex programs but provided few figures and declined to identify by name some of the districts involved.

In Irvington, N.J., middle school Principal Anthony Pilone learned just what happens once lawyers and education policymakers catch wind of single-sex programs they believe are illegal.

In the fall of 1994, Mr. Pilone separated boys and girls in classrooms at Myrtle Middle School. He was convinced that the distractions of coeducation for young adolescents were getting in the way of academic achievement.

“Every problem I encountered in this building was somehow tied to ‘he said, she said,’” Mr. Pilone recalled. With single-sex classrooms, conflicts subsided and boys even began to enjoy their chorus class because “it was no longer viewed as being just for girls,” he said.

Last October, however, a new superintendent took over in Irvington and shut the experiment down within two days, Mr. Pilone said. The superintendent, Peter Carter, cited legal guidance from state education officials that the classes violated Title IX.

“The teachers loved it; the students loved it,” Mr. Pilone said. “The single-gender classes were the hub of what I wanted to do to improve the school, and it didn’t cost a nickel.”

Mr. Carter said the state’s legal opinion was presented months before he arrived but his predecessor “failed to relay it.”

“The law is the law,” he said. “There’s no second-guessing it.”

State officials in Iowa, meanwhile, recently closed the door on single-sex classrooms under way or proposed by two districts, as well as by one private school. (See Education Week, June 12, 1996.)

In the West Des Moines district, two public schools were trying single-sex classrooms for part of the day, involving only students whose parents volunteered for the experiment.

“We really don’t believe what we were doing is a violation of the intent of Title IX,” said Les Omotani, the superintendent of the 8,500-student district. “We are very positive in our intentions here.”

‘Comparable’ Facilities

Good intentions or not, legal experts say Title IX specifically prohibits single-sex classrooms in public schools, except for physical education courses involving contact sports (but not all physical education classes) and sex education classes.

One gray area is a federal Department of Education regulation stating that districts may take such action to overcome conditions that have limited participation by one sex in a particular course offering. Some districts have pointed to this exception to justify math classes for girls.

Norma V. Cantu, the assistant secretary for civil rights in the Education Department, said that rather than stifle districts’ educational experiments, the office for civil rights tries to ensure that classes and programs are open to both girls and boys.

In Ventura, Calif., the Math PLUS classes have not attracted any boys, “but not because they were excluded” by policy, she said in an interview last week.

Ms. Cantu also noted that the 1972 law does not prohibit separate schools for girls and boys so long as facilities and offerings are “comparable.”

Ms. Cantu discounted Justice Scalia’s idea that all experimentation with single-sex education is dead.

“The majority was very clearly speaking to the VMI case,” she said. “It was silent on any other program around the country.”

Few Court Rulings

The Education Department’s approach to single-sex programs that are being challenged strikes some observers as a wink and a nod that favors opening programs to both sexes even though most involved know that few members of the untargeted sex will participate.

That rankles critics of single-sex programs, as does the idea that programs pass muster as long as they are labeled in a gender-neutral way, such as “math for the mathematically challenged.”

“The remedy has to do something other than perpetuate the stereotypes of girls being unable to learn certain subjects,” said Kathy Rodgers, the executive director of the NOW Legal Defense and Education Fund in New York City.

Few court rulings have taken on single-sex K-12 programs.

The Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of two single-sex public high schools in Philadelphia in a 1976 case, Vorchheimer v. School District of Philadelphia. But the court split evenly, thus affirming a lower-court ruling that found the two schools were comparably equal and constitutional without setting a national precedent.

In a later suit, state courts ordered the admission of girls to Philadelphia’s all-male Central High School.

In the VMI case, the Supreme Court found that Virginia’s proposed alternative military-style program for women was a “pale shadow” of the men’s institution. Thus, the court appears to have reserved the question of whether male and female programs that are truly comparable--"separate but equal"--would pass muster.

Marcia D. Greenberger, the co-president of the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, said the high court has indicated it will be highly skeptical of any gender-exclusive programs.

“In looking at single-sex programs at any level, school boards and states need to have an ‘exceedingly persuasive justification,’” she said, referring to language used by Justice Ginsburg. “If, in the end, they reinforce old stereotypes, or close doors of opportunity, then they are on very shaky ground.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 1996 edition of Education Week as Educators Debate Impact of Ruling on Single-Sex Classes


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