Girls' High is a living monument to gender discrimination
by Larry Kalikow
For more than a quarter-century, the School District of Philadelphia has maintained a special-admission, academically superior high school exclusively for girls, the Philadelphia High School for Girls (aka "Girls' High"), without affording equivalent educational opportunity for boys.
On its website, the Philadelphia High School for Girls, for many years, unabashedly described itself as "a public, college preparatory school for academically talented young women drawn from the rich diversity of the city." It has further proclaimed that it provides, among other benefits, an "outstanding academic opportunity," an "unequaled art program," "outstanding AP opportunities" and "superb choices in the sciences, math and languages." Yet, the School District of Philadelphia has no corresponding boys-only school "for academically talented young men." Certainly, the diversity of the city is rich enough, and has been for the last 25 years, to include many such male students.
The Philadelphia High School for Girls -- with its 1,100-plus spaces reserved for academically talented young women -- stands as a living monument to institutional sex discrimination. While former Superintendent Arlene Ackerman repeatedly professed her commitment to "ending inequity" in Philadelphia's public schools, she, incongruously, turned a blind eye to the manifest inequity of the District's operating a special admission, academically superior high school for girls without an equivalent school for boys. In its continued operation of Girls' High, the District is promoting a gender-based double standard of educational opportunity.
Moreover, in denying male students equal educational opportunity, the District egregiously violates federal and state anti-discrimination laws. These include Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, the Equal Protection Clause of the federal constitution and, more significantly, the Pennsylvania Equal Rights Amendment, which has been the law of the Commonwealth for more than four decades. That amendment provides that "equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania because of the sex of the individual." As has been observed by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania:
The thrust of the Equal Rights Amendment is to insure equality of rights under the law and to eliminate sex as a basis for distinction. The sex of the citizens of this Commonwealth is no longer a permissible factor in the determination of their legal rights and responsibilities. The law will not impose different benefits or burdens upon the members of a society based on the fact that they may be man or woman.
That no other school district in Pennsylvania has a special all-boys or all-girls high school like Philadelphia High School for Girls, without a corresponding, equivalent school for students of the other sex is not surprising. Such asymmetry in educational opportunity is clearly unlawful. As indicated above, the Equal Rights Amendment of the Pennsylvania Constitution flatly prohibits discrimination "because of the sex of the individual" and will not countenance special benefits being conferred by a school district, or by any other governmental entity, based on gender.
There is simply no valid legal basis for contending that the prohibitions against sex discrimination, which required then-all-male Central High School to become coeducational in 1983, applies with any less force now to all-female Girls' High. (Anyone supporting the sex discrimination in education perpetuated by the Philadelphia High School for Girls should educate himself or herself by reading Newberg v. Board of Public Education, United States v. Virginia, and Mississippi University for Women v. Hogan.)
Surely, if the complained-of denial of equal educational opportunity were based on race, or if women or girls constituted the class being discriminated against, it would be strongly condemned and swiftly relegated to the dustbin of history. Notwithstanding any protestations to the contrary, the proponents of the status quo are guilty of both sexism and hypocrisy.
The School Reform Commission and the School District of Philadelphia should demonstrate respect for the law and for the principles of fairness and equality that the law seeks to uphold. (Tragically, the School District of Philadelphia's brazenly flouting federal and state anti-discrimination laws teaches a horrible lesson to the schoolchildren of Philadelphia -- a lesson that encourages disrespect for the law.) The SRC and the District should embrace, promote, and enforce the extant, legally mandated policy (applicable to all public schools) of equal educational opportunity for all of Pennsylvania's children, regardless of whether they are male or female.
For a start, Philadelphia High School for Girls should be brought into compliance with the law. Its name and enrollment should change. It should open its doors to boys and become a coeducational school, or its doors should be closed to all. The time has come to put an end to de jure sex discrimination in public education in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which, of course, includes the School District of Philadelphia. Moreover, not one cent of Pennsylvania taxpayer revenues should be used to support a school district that continues to violate state anti-discrimination laws, including our Equal Rights Amendment, enshrined in the Declaration of Rights of our state constitution.
Distilled to its essence, this is a plea for adherence to the rule of law, which should never be trumped by either sexist traditions or political correctness.
Larry Kalikow is an attorney and a citizen of the United States and of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.