Here in Alabama and across the South, our public schools — and the children who attend them — are under continuous assault. Cuts in state funding, school closings and increases in school and class sizes are just some of the ways the quality of education for our youngsters is undercut.
The fact that many of these decisions are made locally should not be misunderstood to mean they're made democratically. In reality, it's often the opposite: School officials agree on plans in private meetings, pre-meetings, and closed-door sessions. By the time a proposal reaches a public meeting, it's often a done deal. Parents and other community members frequently have little chance of influencing school decisions.
This backdoor process has contributed to the spread of sex segregation in Southern schools. School officials have become enamored with the idea of separating boys and girls by putting them in different classes, or even in completely separate institutions.
These sex segregated schemes are often promoted as a way to help "at-risk" African-American boys. But in truth, co-education is not what is hindering these children's schooling. The real problems are plain to see, and include inadequate funding, overcrowded schools and classrooms, and school officials' obsession with test scores, exacerbated by the linkage of school funding to those scores. Sex segregation is a cheap, short-term diversion from the real problems of educational inequality.
There's also more to the story of single sex education. Although school officials, in their public statements, promise improved academic achievement through single sex programs, behind that façade — particularly in predominantly black schools — is a concern with discipline, and a view that African-American boys are a disciplinary problem.
Another common justification for separating boys and girls is that they "distract" each other in class. Aside from being unsupported by scientific research, this assertion about adolescent romance in schools has a sinister history. When the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education forced schools to stop segregating students by race, many schools turned to sex segregation because it prevented contact between black boys and white girls. In light of its history, separating students by sex is an extension of segregation by color.
Other states haven chosen a better course than we in Alabama have at present. The state of Washington has issued a memorandum to school districts affirming that single gender classes are prohibited except in narrow circumstances.
The memo states: "Washington state law prohibits school districts from providing any course, program, or activity separately based on sex . . . even if a single sex class or activity is permissible under federal law."
Subsequently, the Tacoma School District has ended a program at one middle school that separated boys and girls for several classes. Separation of students based on sex is permitted only for physical education classes, classes that deal with human sexuality and choir, and even then only when justified. The situation in Washington stands in contrast to that in Alabama, where schools continue to implement single sex program without any research basis at all.
We at Citizens for Better Schools believe each child must be seen and treated as an individual. Lumping students by sex, and asserting that boys need one thing and girls another, is neither the right thing to do, nor does it improve educational outcomes in practice.
Students, their parents, and their communities know what students and schools need to succeed. The sooner we can brush past gimmicks like single-sex education and get down to the real work of improving educational opportunity for all students, the better.
Ronald E. Jackson is executive director of Citizens for Better Schools. Previously he served two terms as a member of the Alabama House of Representatives, and was the managing attorney for the Birmingham Legal Aid Society.