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It's Not Choice, It's Inequality

Selene Kaye,
Director, Liberty Division,
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May 19, 2008

Today the ACLU filed an amended complaint in federal court charging that Breckinridge County, Ky., and the U.S. Department of Education are violating the law by allowing sex segregation in public schools. The ACLU lawsuit expands a previous lawsuit filed by a private attorney to include the Department of Education as a defendant for its role in encouraging sex-segregated schooling. School districts across the country have been touting the ‘choice’ that sex-segregated programs offer students and parents, but Breckinridge County is a perfect illustration of why sex-segregated education fails to offer a meaningful choice.

Nikki Anthony is a talented 8th-grader at Breckinridge County Middle School. She and her parents prefer that she be in co-ed math classes, learning to compete and work together with boys, which she feels will prepare her for high school (which is co-ed in Breckinridge) and the real world. But at the beginning of the school year, the school decided that what was better for her was to be in a girls-only algebra class. She was offered no choice, and her parents had no say in the matter.

Not surprisingly, there was protest from parents of the middle school students who had been assigned to either sex-segregated or co-ed classes with no parental input. In response, the school belatedly gave some parents the option to switch their kids out of the sex-segregated classes. But there was no co-ed algebra class for Nikki to switch into. All of the algebra students had been put into either the girls-only or the boys-only class; the only co-ed 8th-grade math class being offered was a pre-algebra class. Nikki couldn’t switch out of her math class without compromising her education because the girls’ class was the best math class in the school, moving at a faster rate than the boys’ algebra class. (This also means that boys did not even have the option of attending the best math class in the school.)

It was then that Nikki and her parents realized the real problem with sex-segregated education: it is impossible to ensure equal educational opportunities for all students when you create single-sex classes, even when there is still a co-ed option. When you separate students into two or three different sets of classes based on gender, inequality is inevitable. Sure, Nikki was given the ‘option’ to switch into a co-ed math class, but it would have meant repeating the curriculum she had learned the year before. She didn’t have a real choice.

Nikki’s situation illustrates the fundamental problem with the sex segregation experiments that public schools across the country have been conducting. Many districts are advertising sex segregation programs as new options for improving education that offer students and parents more choices. But what sex segregation really does is create inequality and deprive both boys and girls of the benefits of a diverse classroom. Furthermore, it diverts attention and resources from reliable methods of improving student achievement, such as reducing class sizes, increasing parental involvement, and improving teacher training.

Sex segregation is illegal and discriminatory, and we hope that our lawsuit results in public school districts halting these experiments and the U.S. Department of Education rescinding its 2006 regulations encouraging sex segregation in schools.

To listen to podcasts of the Anthony family and ACLU Women’s Rights Project Deputy Director, Emily Martin, discussing the sex segregation in the Breckinridge County School District and for more information on the Women’s Rights Project’s work on sex segregation, check out:

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post incorrectly stated that we “filed a lawsuit.” An amended complaint, not a lawsuit, was filed.

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