- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 24, 2008

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a federal lawsuit to stop a middle school in Kentucky from offering all-boy and all-girl classes, and to challenge the 2006 Department of Education policy that has allowed these setups.

The lawsuit claims that the single-sex classrooms in Breckinridge County Middle School are illegal and discriminatory, calling into question a practice that many public schools nationwide have implemented in recent years.

“We are challenging the U.S. Department of Education regulations which have led schools across the country to experiment with sex-segregated classes,” said Emily Martin, the lead ACLU attorney on the case. “We are saying that the rules the Department of Education set out are insufficient to ensure equality here.”

Leonard Sax, a lead proponent of single-sex education as an option, said the ACLU has been searching for three years for a school that had problems implementing the department’s policy, in order to select a case that would encourage a court to overturn the policy.

“Now they think they’ve found it,” he said.

Single-sex schooling is fiercely debated in academic circles. In 2006, the Department of Education issued more lenient regulations governing single-sex classes in public schools.

The new regulations allowed public schools to implement these classes provided certain criteria were met, including that it have an important government objective, that boys and girls be treated in an “evenhanded” way, and that coeducational classes are also available.

The ACLU lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucky in Louisville, runs on two tracks — accusations against the Breckinridge County Board of Education and accusations against the DOE policy.

According to the ACLU, which is representing five families, the single-sex plan at Breckinridge was exceptionally problematic because, among other shortfalls, boys’ classes and girls’ classes differed in textbooks and the rates in which they covered academic materials.

The ACLU also charges that in the current school year, students were assigned to either same-sex or coeducational classes without parent or student input, which violated the Department of Education policy. The group also argues that in some instances, the coed classes offered at Breckinridge were subpar to the single-sex classes in the same subject.

Ms. Martin said the ACLU isn’t trying to rid public schools of all single-sex classes, noting that in sex education and sports they are appropriate and legal.

The school, which has about 600 students in grades 6 through 8, began with single-sex math and science classes in 2003 and has since expanded to other subjects, according to the ACLU.

The ACLU suit — which builds on an existing private lawsuit against the school — argued that Breckinridge’s setup violates several laws, including Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 and the equal protection clause under the 14th Amendment.

Separately, it contends the DOE’s regulations violate the equal protection clause of the Fifth Amendment as well as Title IX.

The Department of Education declined to comment on the case.

In a statement, the Breckinridge County Board of Education said it is “fully complying” with DOE regulations and Title IX in the 2008-2009 school year.

The statement defended the school’s single-sex classes as “helping improve the educational achievement of our students.” The board has worked on the school policy for several months and thinks it “fully complies with the law.”

Evelyn Neely, superintendent of Breckinridge County School District, said students will be assigned to single-sex classes “per their parents’ request” in the coming school year but couldn’t comment on past occurrences or other details.

Mr. Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (NASSPE), said if the charges against the school are true, it should change its practices. But he said ACLU lawyers “are not going to get anywhere” with their broader charges against the DOE policy. He predicted the Supreme Court would rule in favor of optional single-sex education if given the chance.

According to the NASSPE, there are at least 392 public schools in the United States that offer single-sex educational opportunities.

Mr. Sax, author of “Why Gender Matters,” has argued repeatedly that a single-sex environment, if introduced correctly, can actually break down stereotypes and empower both sexes far better than a coed setting can.

Girls in single-sex education are more likely to take math, science and computer classes, and boys are more likely to take art, music and foreign languages, he said, stressing that it must be a choice because it’s not right for every child.

The NASSPE Web site lists several studies that find single-sex education is more successful than coed environments.

But critics have argued otherwise and a comprehensive report issued by the Department of Education in 2005 was largely inconclusive. It found many studies supported same-sex education, but others found better results in coed settings and some found no difference.

Woodbridge Middle School in Northern Virginia implemented single-sex classes as an option in 6th grade this school year.

Principal Skyles Calhoun said it’s the parents’ choice and has been “absolutely wonderful” for all involved, with both girls and boys thriving. Tests to measure student progress will be given soon, he said.

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