With D.C. Public Schools graduating less than half of its black male high school students, Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to close the achievement gap by establishing an all-boys high school earned high praise from lawmakers and educators when it was announced last month.
But concern over the plan’s legality is mounting. The American Civil Liberties Union is questioning the educational model that officials say threatens to run afoul of federal protections to ensure equality for young women.
Operating a single-sex school in and of itself isn’t illegal, but according to U.S. Department of Education regulations, public schools that segregate by gender must offer “substantially equal” benefits for the opposite sex or fall under an exemption offered for stand-alone public charter schools.
The devil is in the details for the ACLU, which nationally has a track record of fighting single-sex education proposals believed to be unlawful. The American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital sent a letterTuesday to Ms. Bowser praising the effort to address racial disparities among student achievement but questioning how the District will run the all-boys school, which is scheduled to open in the 2016-2017 school year, and how it will balance benefits for girls.
“How are they going to target students for admission? Will non-black and Latino students be able to apply? How will the curriculum be different?” said Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the local chapter, rattling off questions that could stir up legal turmoil.
D.C. Public Schools spokeswoman Melissa Salmanowitz said many of the plan’s practical details, including whether the school would occupy an existing building or be built from scratch, are still being worked out.
The all-boys school is part of a $20 million Empowering Males of Color initiative announced by Ms. Bowser and D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson to boost academic achievement and graduation rates among male black and Hispanic students. The initiative will be at least partially funded through private donations and will include components such as an enhanced mentoring program and targeted grants to schools to improve academic development and family engagement.
At the Jan. 20 announcement, D.C. Public Schools officials said they will partner with Urban Prep Academies, a nonprofit that runs three successful all-boys high schools in Chicago. The D.C. school would be located east of the Anacostia River and serve about 500 students.
“Girls of color are being completely left out here,” said Lenora Lapidus, director of the Women’s Rights Project at the ACLU. “Here, there seems to be nothing provided to girls. That would violate both Title IX and the equal protections clause of the Constitution.”
Single sex vs. coed
Single-sex education is generally prohibited under Title IX, the federal law that bans discrimination based on sex in schools and colleges and is best known for forcing changes in spending on athletic teams.
But in 2006, the U.S. Department of Education loosened guidelines to allow districts to create single-sex schools and classes, so long as enrollment is voluntary.
A report published in December by the Feminist Majority Foundation noted that the numbers of single-sex schools and classes are on the rise. The study identified 106 single-sex schools operating nationwide from 2011 to 2014, compared with 82 that were in operation from 2007 to 2010. All-girls schools were more prevalent, comprising 67 of the 106 schools.
The Department of Education issued guidance in December clarifying the circumstances under which coeducational schools could offer female-only or male-only classes. Among the regulations, schools must provide justification for the single-sex setting and ensure a “substantially equal” class on the same subject for both sexes.
The guidance leaves single-sex school regulations intact. It states that any public nonvocational elementary or secondary school that segregates by sex “must provide students of the excluded sex a substantially equal single-sex school or coeducational school.”
The question of what D.C. Public Schools would offer as a “substantially equal” benefit for girls to counter the all-boys high school prompted D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh to seek a legal opinion on the matter from the city’s attorney general.
“The problem with boys-only programs or schools is not the separation of the two groups, as such,” Ms. Cheh, Ward 3 Democrat, wrote in the request three weeks after the mayor’s announcement. “What is potentially illegal is offering educational benefits to boys without offering the same or substantially equal benefits to girls.”
A spokesman for Ms. Bowser said the mayor’s office welcomes the attorney general’s legal opinion.
Other D.C. Council members have come to the initiative’s defense.
“I in no way believe that DCPS moving ahead with their [Empowering Males of Color] initiative means that they will somehow abandon their commitment to ensuring that our young women also succeed,” said David Grosso, at-large independent and chairman of the council’s Education Committee.
He noted that targeted funding in the school system has been available to other disadvantaged groups, such as foster children and homeless students.
‘Huge racial disparities’
D.C Public Schools data show black and Hispanic boys lagging behind other groups in multiple measures of performance. The rate at which black and Hispanic boys graduate from high school in four years is 48 percent and 57 percent, respectively.
Black and Hispanic girls performed only marginally better last year, at 62 percent and 66 percent, respectively. White girls and boys graduated within four years at far higher rates: 91 percent and 82 percent, respectively.
Black boys and black girls make up 34 percent of the D.C. Public Schools’ student population, which has more than 46,000 students overall and nearly 11,000 students enrolled in ninth through 12th grades in the 2013-2014 school year.
“It’s not the coeducational nature of the school that has been the problem,” the ACLU’s Ms. Lapidus said. “There are huge racial disparities in education and problems in the school system, but those don’t arise because boys and girls are being taught together. We know that girls of color are also suffering.”
The ACLU has fought single-sex education proposals nationwide, finding segregated classes and schools often rely on “archaic gender stereotypes” in their teaching methods, Ms. Lapidus said.
The charter option
In September, the ACLU filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over an Austin, Texas, school district’s plan to open an all-boys and an all-girls schools in a predominantly minority neighborhood. The ACLU challenged the school district’s plan to use different teaching methods, environments and curricula in the boys and girls schools, saying the sex stereotypes would limit opportunities for all.
A lawsuit brought by the ACLU against a West Virginia school board on behalf of a woman whose daughters attended a sex-segregated middle school was settled in 2013 with the school abandoning single-sex education for the next two school years.
The ACLU also opposed a Madison, Wisconsin, school district plan to open an all-boys preparatory school in 2011. Similar to plans for the D.C. school, the Madison school would have been geared toward minority students. The Madison Board of Education ultimately blocked the proposal.
Many advocates of single-sex education support the practice based on the belief that girls and boys learn differently — though the founders of Urban Prep Academies, who ultimately would run the D.C. school, say they are not proponents of the idea.
“We think that children learn and the best way to educate them is provide them with education or structure that meets their needs,” Urban Prep founder Tim King said at the announcement of the D.C. initiative. “The biggest advantage of a single-gender school, whether it be an all-boys school or an all-girls school, you’re able to have a laser focus on the type of student or population you are serving.”
Single-sex schools are not unheard of in the District.
The Excel Academy, for example, is an all-girls public charter school in Southeast that is allowed to operate as a single-sex school because of its charter status. Department of Education guidelines grant an exception to the sex-segregation guidelines for public, nonvocational schools that operate as their own local educational agencies, or school districts.
In the District, charter schools are operated independently from the public school system and are overseen by a separate charter school board.
D.C. Public Schools has not outlined how its partnership with Urban Prep Academies would work.
The attorney general’s office has given no indication as to when it will complete its legal review of the proposal.