How Racist History Ended a School Experiment

Ghosts of "separate but equal" leads the ACLU to take a middle school to task for separating eighth-grade girls and boys.

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The racist "separate but equal" policies of the pre-civil-rights-era South are still reverberating in North Carolina — and has affected what many see as a legitimate educational experiment. Last week, Parkwood Middle School, in a suburb of Charlotte, bowed to pressure from the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and ended a half-year tryout in which 55 of 335 of Parkwood's eighth graders were separated by gender into two different classes. The ACLU claimed the exercise, which school officials hoped would highlight any intellectual benefits of segregating adolescents by gender, was discriminatory toward the girls involved; in their argument against the separation, the civil rights group cited a 1972 law banning sexual discrimination at federally funded schools.

But did this endeavor actually hurt the female students, or did it provide them an opportunity to study and learn without the often overpowering presence of boys? While the relative academic merit of separate girls' schools is in itself a subject of much debate, the ACLU wasn't interested in educational theory in this case. Their concerns were motivated primarily by what they considered disturbing echoes of racial segregation and discrimination.

Before the Supreme Court's 1954 decision on Brown v. Board of Education, the idea of maintaining "separate but equal" facilities for different groups (generally blacks and whites) was widely accepted, especially in the South. ACLU officials found Parkwood's idea of separate classrooms a bit too reminiscent of a less enlightened era, says TIME legal reporter Alain Sanders. "The ACLU is approaching the problem from a historical perspective, and the history of segregation, racial or gender-based, is one in which women and minorities have consistently gotten the short end of the stick," says Sanders. So just as an odd coalition of religious conservatives and feminists will continue to trumpet the benefits of same-sex classrooms, the ACLU will continue to champion civil rights laws — even at the expense of another, perhaps equally valid viewpoint.