Academic journal article Washington Law Review

Separating Dick and Jane: Single-Sex Public Education under the Washington State Equal Rights Amendment

Academic journal article Washington Law Review

Separating Dick and Jane: Single-Sex Public Education under the Washington State Equal Rights Amendment

Article excerpt

Abstract: Single-sex education in public school systems has become increasingly popular in recent years. The Equal Rights Amendment to the Washington State Constitution (ERA) requires that males and females be treated equally where state action, such as public education, is involved. As demonstrated by the ERA's legislative history and Washington case law, the ERA prohibits differentiation on the basis of sex alone, which occurs where an individual would be treated differently in a given situation if that person were of the opposite sex. Legislative history and case law recognize two narrow exceptions to the ERA. Under the first exception, classification based on sex is permissible if it is based on actual physical differences between the sexes. The second exception allows sex-based distinctions in the context of affirmative action programs intended solely to ameliorate the effects of past discrimination. This Comment argues that based on the Amendment's plain meaning and legislative history, as well as both binding and persuasive precedent, single-sex public education contravenes the ERA by differentiating on the basis of sex alone. Single-sex public education violates the ERA based on the plain meaning of the Amendment, which mandates equality between the sexes. Single-sex public education also runs afoul of the ERA by effecting arbitrary sex-based classifications: but for a given student's sex, that student would be allowed into a particular class or school. Moreover, a Pennsylvania court has held that single-sex public education violates Pennsylvania's ERA, which parallels Washington's ERA in language, purpose, and application. Finally, single-sex public education does not currently satisfy either of the two narrow exceptions to Washington's ERA: learning does not involve an actual physical difference between the sexes, and single-sex classes and schools are not affirmative action programs intended solely to mitigate the effects of past discrimination.

Sam, a public school student, is excited about the upcoming academic year, and especially about biology class with a new biology teacher.1 The school recruited the new teacher because of his charisma and impressive credentials. Biology is Sam's best subject, and Sam has been in a study group with Josh and Daniel for the last four years. All three students aspire to be biologists and have been good friends since they met in the first grade. Even though summer vacation has not yet ended, the three have already begun brainstorming what they hope will be the winning entry in the school's science fair. Before the academic year begins, however, the school board decides to make all science classes single-sex. Josh and Daniel will be together in the new biology teacher's class, but because Sam (Samantha) is a girl, she will be required to take biology with the other girls. Sam is upset, and her parents worry that their daughter's chances of receiving a meaningful education in biology have been squelched.

Although the overwhelming majority of public schools in the United States today are coeducational, interest in single-sex public education has surged in recent years.2 Ten years ago, only a handful of single-sex public schools existed in the United States.3 By the 2005-06 academic year, however, a single-sex learning experience was available at more than 200 public schools across the country.4 In Washington, Seattle's Thurgood Marshall Elementary School and Olympia's Washington Middle School offer their students a single-sex learning experience.5 Its proponents contend that, among other things, single-sex education counteracts stereotypes,6 reduces discrimination in the classroom,7 and shrinks the gender gap in math and science.8 Some proponents also argue that single-sex education is particularly beneficial for female students,9 minority students,10 and students from low-income homes." Furthermore, single-sex public education provides poor and minority children with single-sex educational opportunities that their families might not otherwise be able to afford. …

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