I just blogged two days ago about a new Canadian study showing that girls who are told they're dumb at math are more likely to be dumb at math. The Bush administration must have read the same study, because they've just issued new Title IX regulations allowing schools to reapply the Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) separate but equal standard--except on the basis of gender, instead of race:
The regulations allow schools to separate girls and boys for virtually any reason they can dream up – including outdated and dangerous gender stereotypes. And although the Administration’s regulations claim to make these programs optional, sex segregation can never be truly voluntary. Girls are never allowed to choose to be in the boys' class. Boys' are never allowed to choose to be in the girls' class. That's the nature of segregation, and precisely why we as a society have chosen to reject segregation in schools.If you're convinced that this is harmless--that there can be such a thing as separate but equal--then I can offer no better logic than that presented by Chief Justice Earl Warren in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), the case that overturned Plessy:
Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society. It is required in the performance of our most basic public responsibilities, even service in the armed forces. It is the very foundation of good citizenship. Today it is a principal instrument in awakening the child to cultural values, in preparing him for later professional training, and in helping him to adjust normally to his environment. In these days, it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms ...Will this attempt to reinforce cultural gender roles pass constitutional muster under the current court? If we look at court precedent, the most likely answer is: Sometimes yes, sometimes no. The Supreme Court did issue a ruling in United States v. Virginia (1996) that gender segregated military academies are unconstitutional, but there is a loophole in the ruling that could allow for limited gender segregation under specific circumstances. Justice Ginsburg wrote for the 7-1 majority:
We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of "separate but equal" has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal. Therefore, we hold that the plaintiffs and others similarly situated for whom the actions have been brought are, by reason of the segregation complained of, deprived of the equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment.
Single-sex education affords pedagogical benefits to at least some students, Virginia emphasizes, and that reality is uncontested in this litigation. Similarly, it is not disputed that diversity among public educational institutions can serve the public good. But Virginia has not shown that VMI was established, or has been maintained, with a view to diversifying, by its categorical exclusion of women, educational opportunities within the State. In cases of this genre, our precedent instructs that "benign" justifications proffered in defense of categorical exclusions will not be accepted automatically; a tenable justification must describe actual state purposes, not rationalizations for actions in fact differently grounded.This suggests that the two standards applied against school boards that rely on the new Title IX regulations to segregate classrooms may well be diversity (e.g., does the student have the option of non-segregated educational facilities?) and intent (e.g., what was the purpose of the specific segregation program?). Right now it's too soon to say. This summer's Livingston Parish ruling was encouraging, but whether or not it is predictive of higher court rulings remains to be seen.
It is a mistake to think of gender segregation as if it were a series of voluntary, experimental pilot programs. The objective is mandatory, across-the-board gender apartheid. I had an interesting conversation with a single mother some months ago. She had put her son into a boys-only educational program, despite the fact that she wasn't sure she liked that approach--because it was the only public school program available. All of this took place, obviously, long before this week's Title IX regulation revisions. Five years from now, how many parents will find themselves in the same situation?
It is also a mistake to assume that these mandatory "separate but equal" programs will, in fact, allow separate but equal educational opportunities. History alone should be enough to tell us that--but if it isn't, remember that the public school gender segregation movement began to blossom only when girls began outperforming boys on standardized tests, and that its leaders are those who most visibly preach what they describe as the religiously-mandated authority of men over women. Even if "separate but equal" were not a contradiction in terms, allowing the Bush administration and right-wing school boards to redraw educational opportunities for girls would be as tragic as it is naive. We must fight this.