Blog of Rights

Madison School Board Rejects Sex Segregated School

By Galen Sherwin, ACLU Women's Rights Project at 10:13am

Early Tuesday morning in Wisconsin, the Madison School Board voted 5-2 against a proposal to start a charter school that would have segregated students on the basis of sex, relying on a model of “gender specific” instruction.  The vote marked the culmination of a year-long advocacy campaign in which ACLU-WI collaborated closely with numerous allies.  

The proposal was defeated largely on grounds that the school was to use non-union teachers with little school board oversight.  Although those issues predominated at the hearing, the ACLU of Wisconsin made sure that the school board could not ignore the gender equality issues. 

As ACLU-WI ED Chris Ahmuty explained in an op-ed published Monday:

The proposal still fails to explain why or how sex segregation would close the racial achievement gap, raises serious questions about the equality of opportunities to be offered to boys and girls, and falls far short of satisfying the requirements of federal law.

Though the revised proposal promises identical curriculums for boys' and girls' classes, the Urban League has recently confirmed that it supports "gender specific" teaching methods — or the theory that boys and girls learn so differently that they require different teaching styles.

Although this may sound relatively benign, most people would be shocked at what it actually looks like in practice: Boys are allowed to toss footballs and jump and run around during academic classes, while girls sit quietly in circles and work collaboratively; teachers shout at boys and speak softly to girls; boys are presumed to be more interested in subjects like hunting or sports, and girls in relationships and beauty.

These are nothing more than archaic sex stereotypes, repackaged as "science." Such stereotypes limit opportunities for boys and girls alike, and they have no place in publicly funded schools.

They are also unlawful. The Supreme Court has held that educational institutions can't structure their programs based on overbroad generalizations about the different talents and capacities and preferences of men and women. Officials, including the school district and the Department of Public instruction, have recognized that sex segregation is legally risky, but have otherwise punted on definitively determining the plan's legality, deferring to future decision-makers. But the buck stops here; the School Board cannot afford to take gender equality equally lightly.

Madison clearly cannot afford to ignore racial inequality in education, and the board’s vote should not mean the end of that aspect of the debate.  But as Chris explained, “coeducation didn't cause the racial achievement gap, and programs that reinforce stereotypes about boys and girls will certainly not fix it.”

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