The Bush administration is giving public school districts broad new latitude to expand the number of single-sex classes, and even schools, in what is widely considered the most significant policy change on the issue since a landmark federal law barring sex discrimination in education more than 30 years ago.For now, I’m not going to argue for or against the value of single-sex classes. There are arguments in both directions, I’ve outlined my feelings about it before, and, at this point, I’d prefer to focus on the legislation itself. So that said, this legislation stinks.
Two years in the making, the new rules, announced Tuesday by the Education Department, will allow districts to create single-sex schools and classes as long as enrollment is voluntary. School districts that go that route must also make coeducational schools and classes of “substantially equal” quality available for members of the excluded sex.
Voluntary enrollment sounds fine and all, until one considers how difficult it would be for cash-strapped public school systems who believe in single-sex classes to continue offering coeducational classes to sustain them, if they become the minority. What if there are 10 parents who are hold-outs, who want their sons and daughters in coeducational classes? What if there are three? Providing one teacher for three students is financially problematic, and necessarily creates a “substantially unequal” classroom, where the student-teacher ratio is clearly more beneficial to students. Then do the parents of students in the single-sex classes get to argue that their children should be given the same quality? I mean, this thing is just a mess waiting to happen.
And what about that term—substantially equal? Who decides what constitutes equality in a classroom? Left to its own devices, the public education system was not providing equality in education to boys and girls, which is why in 1972, Title IX was enacted, which banned sex discrimination in public schools. It’s a charming notion that in the intervening years, everyone’s mind has changed so significantly that equality is a given, but I daresay that’s a dangerous delusion—highlighted by fundamental inequalities even in this legislation. You see, it doesn’t even require that a school which makes single-sex classes available for one sex make them available for the other.
Until now, public school districts that offered a school to one sex generally had to provide a comparable school for students of the other sex. The new rules, however, say districts can simply offer such students the option to attend comparable coeducational schools.Got that? So a public school, receiving federal funding, can set up a single-sex school for boys, but aren’t required to offer the same thing to girls (or vice versa). This, then, becomes a plausible scenario: A brand-new school built for boys only—with wireless networking in every classroom, laptop computers at every desk, all the bells and whistles of a state-of-the-art educational facility. The old school, with regular old desks, a single computer lab for which teachers have to schedule limited times for their classes, etc. is left for coeducational students—which necessarily includes all girls.
But Shakespeare’s Sister! you might say. That wouldn’t pass for substantially equal! Wouldn’t it? Precisely those kinds of disparities have been passing as “substantially equal” in school districts for decades, where minority students are meant to have an unseparate and equal education, but a majority white school on one side of town looks totally different from a majority black school on the other side of town. That’s the problem with vague phrases like “substantially equal”—they don’t mean anything until someone who’s getting the shit end of the stick tries to challenge them, and then what they actually mean is never what they were assumed to mean.
And we should absolutely not assume anything in good faith about “substantially equal” when the legislation itself is providing cover for inequality. Why, if genuine and unassailable equality were of prime concern, would there be a loophole that allows public schools to create single-sex classes for one sex and not the other? There’s nothing “substantially equal,” by any reasonable definition, about that right out of the box.
The administration is dangling the opportunity to discriminate in front of every public school in the country, and feigning ignorance of the very real possibility that some of them are going to take it.