The American Civil Liberties Union has asked the Florida Department of Education (DOE) to investigate single-sex programs throughout the state. In a letter to Gerard Robinson, Commissioner of the Florida Department of Education, the advocacy group thanked him for providing records on “sex segregated educational programs” in the Sunshine State. Based on the ACLU’s finding, some “grave concerns” emerged. According to the ACLU, “Based on the data you provided, it appears that many single sex educational programs:
• Fail to comply with stringent federal and state laws governing such programs;
• Are based on discredited theories and stereotypes about how girls and boys learn, thereby depriving children of their right to be treated as individuals and limiting children’s opportunities and future prospects; and
• Are not subject to adequate monitoring and enforcement of state and federal civil rights laws by the Florida Department of Education.
In a statement, the group contends that the department’s “programs appear to violate federal and state law by forcing students into a single-sex environment, relying on harmful gender stereotypes and depriving students of equal educational opportunities merely because of their sex.”
The ACLU’s letter called upon state education officials to enforce federal and state laws that the group says prohibit discrimination based on sex in school districts “where Florida’s students are being denied their right to an education free from sex stereotypes and other forms of sex discrimination.” The organization’s letter also calls upon the Florida DOE to immediately investigate whether “unlawful single-sex programs that were in place during the 2010-2011 academic year have continued into the current 2011-2012 school year.”
This multi-state effort on the part of the ACLU is what it called “Teach Kids, Not Stereotypes” initiative to end the practice of separating boys and girls based on what the group terms “discredited science rooted in outdated stereotypes.” In the past few weeks, the ACLU has also sent similar public records requests to schools and school districts in Massachusetts, Indiana, Idaho Washington and Illinois, and continues to review records from pending requests in several other states, including Alabama, Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
“All children in Florida have a right to a quality education, but programs that are based on stereotypes do a disservice to our kids,” said Howard Simon, Executive Director of the ACLU of Florida. “While single-sex educational programs may be well motivated, they are based on bad science and, in practice, too frequently end up denying educational opportunities by forcing both female and male students to conform to outdated notions about how boys and girls learn and behave.”
Single-sex educational programs have been widespread in Florida, with programs operating in 32 schools in 16 districts as of the 2010-2011 school year, according to the most recent records provided by the schools to the DOE. The ACLU, says that the records strongly suggest that many of these programs violated federal or state law
Some examples cited in the ACLU’s letter to the DOE include Highlands Middle School in Duval County, which required students who did not wish to participate in the single-sex classes to enroll in another school. The same was true for schools in Polk County, while other counties failed to alert parents that they had the option to opt out of single-sex classes. Other examples include offering classes to one sex, but not the other. Matthew Gilbert Middle School in Duval County, for example, offered single gender journalism and critical thinking classes to boys, but not to girls.
The ACLU letter may lead to a lawsuit, or a complaint against the department.
The ACLU references the work of Dr. Leonard Sax, whose “theories on the supposed differences between boys’ and girls’ brains are rooted in archaic stereotypes.” “Supporters of single-sex education make vague claims that these programs get results but don’t have the proof to back it up,” said Mie Lewis, senior staff attorney with the ACLU Women’s Rights Project. “Instead of implementing these gimmicky programs, schools should focus on strategies that work for all students.”
Defenders of single-sex education, such as the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, point out that there is a legal basis for choosing this option for students.
On its website, the NASSPE states, “On October 25 2006, the United States Department of Education published new regulations governing single-sex education in public schools. These new regulations were required by a provision in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), a provision intended by its authors to legalize single-sex education in public schools (specifically, sections 5131(a)(23) and 5131(c) of the NCLB). The new regulations allow coeducational public schools (elementary and secondary schools) to offer single-sex classrooms, provided that the schools:
1) provide a rationale for offering a single-gender class in that subject. A variety of rationales are acceptable, e.g. if very few girls have taken computer science in the past, the school could offer a girls-only computer science class;
2) provide a coeducational class in the same subject at a geographically accessible location. That location may be at the same school, but the school or school district may also elect to offer the coeducational alternative at a different school which is geographically accessible. The term "geographically accessible" is not explicitly defined in the regulations.
3) conduct a review every two years to determine whether single-sex classes are still necessary to remedy whatever inequity prompted the school to offer the single-sex class in the first place.
The NASSPE website cites a 2008 NBC-TV story in favor of same-sex education, which features an interview with Dr. Sax. Also, according to the NASSPE, Professor Kathy Piechura-Couture of Stetson University reported that over the four years of the pilot study, 55% of boys in the coed classrooms scored proficient on the FCAT, compared with 85% of boys in the all-boys classes. According to the NASSPE, these were done with the same class size, curriculum and demographics. Also, among the sources cited by NASSPE is Dr. Sax's book 'Boys Adrift.'
Private and parochial schools have long instituted separate educational facilities for girls and boys, for both academic and religious reasons.