On the drive home from Cornell on Route 79, students pass a school at Whitney Point with the words “Boys” and “Girls” written over the doors. “Wow. That school is so 1950s; it’s so … antiquated,” commented Evan Hellman ’07 on his ride back to New York City. But for those who thought that separate entrances to schools were out of step, the recent return of public single-sex schools will be even more surprising.
Prof. Gary Simson, law, questions the constitutionality and the benefits of single-sex public schools in an article in the Cornell Law Review.
Recalling the Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education on separation by race, Simson asked, “are sexually separate schools, like racially separated schools, inherently unequal?”
The issue is one that the Supreme Court has yet to resolve.
Following a lawsuit from a female Philadelphia junior high school student who wanted permission to attend the local prestigious all-boys high school, a lower court ordered her admission. The decision was then reversed by the Federal Appeals Court for the Third Circuit, finding the facilities at her designated all-girls school to be essentially equal. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where, with Chief Justice William Rehnquist not participating, the justices split evenly, four in favor of the Third Court’s ruling and four against.
Simson argues that under the Equal Protection Clause, it may be unconstitutional for a school district to have “an all-boys and an all-girls school on the same grade levels.”
The Bush administration, however, has paved the way for the creation of public schools divided by gender: both the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and recently proposed changes to Title IX facilitate their creation.
Additionally, their return can be attributed to reports, such as one by the American Association of University Women, showing gender bias in the schools.
There has also been a resurgence of such institutions in recent years. While there were only a handful of single-sex public schools in the early 90s, there are now between 50 and 60 nationwide.
Regardless of which party is providing the impetus for the changes, however, “it’s one of those things that to some extent goes across the political spectrum,” Simson said.
“While single-sex schools might be a good idea for some people, I think we should reserve this notion for private schools,” agreed Ross Blankenship ’05, director of Cornell College Republicans.
Some students disagree.
“My overall opinion is that single sex education should be standard at certain developmental stages … I think we are being overly ambitious to imagine that either gender is capable of setting healthy boundaries for themselves while immersed with the other gender [during the middle school years],” said Daniel Ross grad.
According to Simson’s article, the issue may hinge on whether single-sex schools are actually beneficial to girls. It raises the question, “does it disadvantage the group that its most worried about?” Simson said. There seems to be a mentality that “girls should be kept away from boys so boys can learn better” among supporters of single-sex public schools, he added.
Given this as the case, his article then looks at the constitutionality of public single-sex education when it takes a form that might advantage girls: providing girls with a choice of either co-educational or a single-sex school, while boys would only be allowed to attend a coed school.
“Shouldn’t we be spending money on the existing public schools?” questioned Kira Dietrich ’07 upon hearing the proposal.
In closing, Simson writes that “even if public single-sex schools pass constitutional muster, they represent too limited a response to the gender equity problems that sparked renewed interest in public single-sex education in recent years.”