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Single-Sex Education Under Fire

The long-running legal campaign against single-sex education, waged mostly by feminists and liberal advocacy groups, has a new target: Washington D.C.’s “Empowering Males of Color” program—a new educational initiative that includes an all-boys school for black and Hispanic students. WAMU radio reports:

The American Civil Liberties Union has released a report that finds a D.C. Public Schools initiative is not fair to girls. The program focuses on serving boys of color.

The $20 million initiative, “Empowering Males of Color,” is meant to help African-American and Latino boys. City leaders say it’s necessary to focus on them because they are far less likely to graduate high school, they are overrepresented in the criminal justice system, and their test scores are far lower than white students’. The programming includes mentoring, grants for schools that specifically target this population and a soon-to-be-opened all-male high school.

But Monica Hopkins-Maxwell of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital says the organization found no justification for excluding girls from the program.

“Single-sex programming is not really an answer,” Hopkins-Maxwell says.

The D.C. program (like the White House’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative) is built on the assumption that young men of color in American cities are particularly exposed to various challenges—a school-to-prison pipeline, social discrimination, unhealthy cultural expectations—that make it harder for them to succeed, and which have destructive downstream consequences for minority communities and for American society as a whole. The hope (backed up by the experiences of various educators, and by some empirical evidence) is that targeted mentoring and educational services, including all-boys schools, can improve the prospects of this uniquely at-risk population.

But to the ACLU—like the feminists who take issue with My Brother’s Keeper—any special tailoring of resources to meet the needs of boys is suspect. Some of their concerns may be warranted—as the ACLU report points out, minority girls are also struggling (to a lesser extent, on average) in D.C. public schools—but the dogmatic opposition to any programming targeted at boys seems misguided. After all, it seems unlikely that the ACLU would devote its resources to challenging public school programs intended to make more girls interested in science on the grounds that certain demographic groups of boys are underrepresented in science classes as well, and that, in any case, the effectiveness of these programs is disputed.

The ongoing conflict over single-sex education highlights the confused state of many of our debates about sexism and gender roles. While men remain overrepresented at the highest echelons of society, boys at the bottom seem to be struggling more than their female peers along many dimensions. And yet, many on the Left still cast gender as a rigid hierarchy, with boys automatically enjoying vast unearned social privileges, and girls automatically facing structural disadvantages. Our society’s ability to help at-risk children would probably be better served if institutions like the ACLU dropped this premise and gave school districts more leeway to target aid at groups that need it, even if they happen to be boys.

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