Single-sex schools and classrooms received authorization from the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, but it wasn’t until Oct. 26, 2006, that the federal government published the regulations governing same-gender K-12 education programs.
The U.S. Department of Education issued guidelines for when and how school districts could implement single-sex programs after a two-year comment period that included strong feelings on both sides of the proposed single-sex regulations.
Generally, school districts that receive federal funds may not offer schools, classes or activities separately on the basis of sex, or require or refuse participation in any school, class or activity on the basis of sex. The Department of Education, however, has long recognized certain exceptions for particular programs, such as contact sports and human sexuality classes.
The new regulations create exceptions that expand the opportunities for recipients of federal assistance to offer single-sex programs, but set out certain requirements for school districts that want to offer single-sex classes and schools.
While the proposed regulations were under review, the Education Department commissioned a research study to evaluate the potential benefits of single-sex education. The 2005 report, “Single-Sex Versus Coeducational Schooling: A Systematic Review,” found mixed results from single-sex schools and programs. (It’s available at www.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/other/single-sex/single-sex.pdf.)
In the nearly three years since the final regulations were issued, many school districts have proposed implementing single-sex schools or classes. There have been challenges to some of these efforts, including lawsuits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Earlier this year, the ACLU brought a lawsuit against Mobile County, Ala., School District after it segregated by sex an entire middle school and failed to inform any parents of what it had done. The Mobile district eventually entered into a settlement agreement with the ACLU in which it agreed to cease offering certain single-sex classes and to ensure any single-sex class or program was completely voluntary.
More recently, the ACLU settled another lawsuit with the Lawrence County School District in Moulton, Ala. In that settlement, the Lawrence district agreed to stop operating single-sex classes at East Lawrence Middle School and to withhold offering such classes or programs at any school in the district through 2011-12. If the district decides to offer single-sex classes after the 2011-12 school year and prior to 2014-15, the district is required to notify the ACLU and provide a rationale for any proposed class or activity.
A class-action lawsuit is pending against the Breckinridge County School District in Hardinsburg, Ky. In this lawsuit, the ACLU alleges the Breckinridge district does not offer substantially equal coeducational classes.
At least one school district, the Greene County School District in Greensboro, Ga., decided not to implement single-sex classes and schools after parents voiced concern about the proposal. The Greene County district had wanted to assign all students to single-sex classrooms or single-sex schools for the 2008-09 school year.
What this means for public school districts considering offering single-sex programs is that before even considering opening such a school or classroom, a district should develop a comprehensive policy that addresses the requirements in the regulations.
In addition, the school district should determine whether any state laws govern single-sex schools and programs. Consulting with legal counsel to ensure compliance with regulations also might be warranted.
Federal regulations require your school district’s policy governing single-sex classrooms and schools address these components:
Articulate an “important educational” objective or objectives for single-sex classes or schools. The policy should articulate the reason(s) for implementing a single-sex program. The regulations provide two examples of justifications: (1) to improve the educational achievements of students through diverse educational opportunities; and (2) to meet the particular, identified education needs of its students.
• Ensure single-sex classes and schools are “substantially related” to achieving the important educational objective(s) for implementing the program. This means the policy should explain how the program is related to the objective or objectives. The policy cannot rely simply on overly broad generalizations about gender characteristics.
For example, the policy could state that because the math scores of girls at the middle school level in the district are lower than the math scores of boys at the middle school level, the district has determined the particular needs of its students require offering a math class for 8th-grade girls to improve the math scores for girls.
• Ensure participation in single-sex classes or schools is voluntary. The policy should make clear how the district is responsible for informing parents about other options. A district must offer enrollment in a coeducational class in the same subject as the single-sex class. The district also should notify parents, guardians and students about their option to enroll in either the single-sex or coeducational class.
• Offer single-sex schools or programs in an “even-handed manner.” The policy should explain how the district will meet this requirement. For example, a school district offering a math class for girls should determine whether its boys would benefit from a math class for boys. If the district determines boys would benefit from such classes, it should offer an all-boys math class. If, however, the district determines a math class for boys would not meet the particular, identified needs of boys, it does not have to provide a single-sex class, only a substantially equal coeducational class.
• Offer a “substantially equal” coeducational class to all students. The policy should discuss how it will comply with this requirement. The Department of Education suggests using these factors to determine whether the program is substantially equal: (1) policies and criteria of admission; (2) educational benefits provided; (3) qualifications of faculty; (4) geographic accessibility; (5) quality, accessibility and availability of facilities and resources provided to the class; (6) reputation of faculty; and (7) the quality and range of extracurriculars.
• Conduct periodic evaluations. The policy should state the district will not only conduct an evaluation of its single-sex classes and programs at least every two years, but also will maintain records demonstrating compliance with other civil rights laws and allow the Department of Education access to such information at any time.
Maree Sneed is an attorney specializing in education law at Hogan & Hartson in Washington, D.C. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Her law partner Audrey J. Anderson contributed to the article.