Turning the Tide Against Unlawful Sex Segregation in Public Schools

Mie Lewis, Senior Staff Attorney, ACLU Women’s Rights Project

In recent years, the number of public schools segregating their students by sex has ballooned, despite mounting evidence that single-sex programs don’t improve academic performance and instead perpetuate sex stereotypes. But things are changing. This week, yet another school district — this time in Tallapoosa County, Alabama — agreed to stop segregating its 350 middle school students by sex. The development in Alabama follows a string of similar turnarounds by school districts in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Louisiana.

For years, Councill Middle School in Tallapoosa County had separated boys and girls for all academic classes, providing no opportunity for students or their parents to opt out. The single-sex scheme was adopted in response to school administrators’ belief that students’ “hormones” were creating disciplinary problems, without any rigorous evaluation of the need for such a program, nor involvement by parents or other stakeholders in the decision-making process.

This case highlights the damage done by the federal Department of Education in 2006, when it adopted regulations weakening the federal ban on sex discrimination in schools. By abandoning its previous categorical ban on such discrimination in favor of allowing sex segregated programs under certain narrow circumstances, the regulations invite schools to discriminate.

In reality, these programs shouldn’t be allowed at all.

The federal law banning sex discrimination, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, is clear that with the exception of things like beauty pageants, religious schools, and the military, “no person in the United States” may be subjected to educational discrimination on the basis of sex —including by separating kids based on their sex within coeducational schools. Yet so long as the Department of Education creates ambiguity about the legal status of sex segregated classrooms, those classrooms will continue to exist, in forms that the Education Department never intended.

To ensure that schools across the country make the promise of a fair and equal education a reality for all children regardless of sex, the Department of Education should rescind its 2006 regulations, reinstating the categorical ban on sex segregation that so greatly advanced educational equality in past decades. Short of that, it should issue guidance to school districts clarifying what is and isn’t permitted. In the meantime, we will continue the stand up for educational equality, one school at a time.

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