ACLU targets single-sex education

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David Demirbilek Contributor
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The American Civil Liberties Union on Monday issued a report to the Department of Education asserting that numerous single-sex education programs in public schools are unlawful. Furthermore, the report calls for the department to rescind its regulations enabling these single-sex education programs.

Part of the ACLU’s “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” campaign, the report presents findings on the scope and characteristics of single-sex education programs in 15 states. The ACLU states that a significant percentage of the schools surveyed base their programs on discredited sex stereotypes.

“All meaningful studies of these programs show that they don’t improve academics, but they do foster stereotypes and do a disservice to kids who don’t fit these artificial distinctions,” said Amy L. Katz, cooperating attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project.  Beliefs in the differences between genders with regard to math and science achievement, literature preferences, and competitiveness are all cited as spurious stereotypes. Some recent studies have cast similar doubt on single-sex education.

In addition to allegedly perpetuating sex-based stereotypes, some schools, according to the study, also do not offer parents a reasonable alternative to single-sex programs. As a result of these two factors, the ACLU claims the schools violate both the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and Title IX, the federal law prohibiting sexual discrimination in federally funded education.  A lawsuit has already been filed against one middle school in West Virginia.

Prior to 2006, federal regulations tied to Title IX generally prohibited single-sex education.  Limited exceptions existed for certain physical education classes, student choirs and sex education.  However, in 2006, the regulations were eased by amendments — Senators Hillary Clinton and Kay Bailey Hutchison among the authors — allowing single-sex education programs in traditional classroom settings under limited circumstances.

Under the 2006 revisions, single-sex programs must be narrowly tailored to either provide diverse educational opportunities or meet highly specific educational needs of students. The regulations also stipulate that these programs must be voluntary, and any school providing single-sex education for one sex must in turn provide it for the other.

The ACLU report stresses that numerous public schools “misapprehend” these 2006 regulations and have instituted programs based on sex-stereotyped instruction in violation of the Constitution, Title IX, and its current regulations.  Accordingly, the ACLU contends both that the 2006 should be rescinded and also that the prior regulations more restrictive of single-sex education should be reinstated.  At a minimum, the ACLU insists that the Department of Education must step up enforcement of its regulations and issue guidance explaining that programs based on sex stereotypes are impermissible.

Critics of the ACLU’s position leaped to the defense of single-sex education.  Christina Hoff Sommers, Resident Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The War Against Boys:  How Misguided Feminism Is Harming Our Young Men,” denounced the report in an interview with the Daily Caller News Foundation.

“I think it’s seriously misguided,” said Sommers.  “What the ACLU’s doing is foreclosing on possibilities for programs that will help children — especially boys — who are languishing in school … the ACLU may not like it, but boys and girls are different.”

Sommers acknowledged that single-sex education should be voluntary and tied this support for freedom of choice into her critique of the ACLU’s report, saying, “It’s ridiculous that we would give parents fewer choices than more … I find it very odd that a group with ‘liberty’ in its name is marching against a parent’s right to choose.”

She also challenged the ACLU’s claim that all meaningful studies of single-sex education showed no improvement in academics among students.  Explaining that studies examining the merits of single-sex programs are “mixed” and often support such programs, Sommers branded the ACLU’s sweeping criticism of single-sex education as a function of ideology.  Sommers offered examples of successful programs ranging from the West Virginia middle school being sued by the ACLU to institutions in Australia and Britain, where recent studies have shined a favorable light on single-sex education.

The ACLU states that its investigation is ongoing with more schools and programs to be evaluated.

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