Single-Sex Schools and the Antisegregation Principle


In United States v. Virginia, which declared unconstitutional the exclusion of women from the state’s premier military training academy, Justice Scalia in dissent pronounced single-sex public education “functionally dead.” Despite this prediction, single-sex schools across the country have continued to operate and, indeed, have even flourished. A renewed “experiment” in single-sex public education at the elementary and secondary level began to find footing in the early nineties, following the release of a study by the American Association of University Women (“AAUW”) showing that girls lagged significantly behind boys in key areas, such as self-esteem and achievement in math and science. In response, local school districts across the country began to establish single-sex public high schools and elementary schools; schools were launched in Chicago, Philadelphia, California, Detroit, and New York. The opportunities single-sex schools seem to offer, and the popular notion that they lead to increased levels of achievement, have reinforced the belief that they present an effective response to the problem of sex inequality in coeducation. Against the backdrop of a growing crisis in public education that has left low-income communities hungry for better options for their children, many educators and parents have come to view singlesex education as a potential remedy not only to achievement gaps between girls and boys, but also to a whole host of social problems such as poor educational performance, teen pregnancy, delinquency, and high drop-out and incarceration rates, particularly among urban youth. Politicians at the national level have embraced the trend toward single-sex education as well. In 2001, as part of the measure popularly known as the “No Child Left Behind Act,” Congress included a provision explicitly authorizing public school systems to seek “innovative assistance programs” for establishing “same-gender schools and classrooms.” The Bush administration has strongly endorsed this trend, and in 2002 announced its intention to reinterpret the rules implementing Title IX in order to “provide more flexibility for educators to establish single-sex classes and schools at the elementary and secondary levels.” The proposed regulations, which were released for comment in May 2004, have garnered thousands of responses and are currently under consideration by the Department of Education. Single-sex public education is controversial, to put it mildly. Educational experts and social commentators have questioned the causal link between singlesex environments and improved achievement, and have argued that sex segregation reinforces stereotypical notions of difference. On a doctrinal level, opponents claim that segregation of students on the basis of sex violates statutory and constitutional mandates. In contrast, proponents of single-sex education claim that under an antisubordination analysis–one that evaluates the permissibility of sex- or race-based classifications in light of their effect on systems of dominance and subordination-such schools should be understood as legally permissible and socially valuable. Although many of these proponents object to programs like the Virginia Military Institute (“VMI”) that exclude women and girls, they support all-girls’ schools, emphasizing their potential as a remedial measure to promote equal opportunity for young women. Furthermore, supporters point out, because many experimental single-sex schools are located in predominantly minority neighborhoods, they have the potential to remedy disadvantages related not only to sex, but to race and class as well. Justifications for single-sex education thus have a decided flavor of affirmative action.

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