Thursday, April 07, 2011

5th Circuit Issues Decision in Single-Sex Education Case

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision today in the case challenging the Vermilion (Louisiana) School Board's decision to institute single-sex classes at Rene A. Rost Middle School. The parent of female students who had been placed in all-girls classes in core subjects sued the school district, challenging the constitutionality of the single-sex classes under the Equal Protection Clause. The plaintiff also challenged the classes' validity under Title IX, which generally prohibits schools excluding students from any class or activity based on sex, but provides a narrow exception for single-sex classes that promote an identified educational objective, are based on genuine justifications, not generalizations and stereotypes, and which provide students the option to select co-ed alternative instead.

The district court had earlier denied the plaintiff's request for a preliminary injunction and allowed the single- sex classes at Rost to continue. Though the district court acknowledged that Vermilion's single-sex classes were justified by experimental data that had been falsified by the principal (an issue that was the subject of this prior post), the court reasoned that because Vermilion's discrimination was not intentional, it did not violate the Equal Protection Clause. It did not consider the plaintiff's alternative argument under Title IX.

Today's decision affirms the lower court's denial of the injunction, reasoning that it is too late in the school year to order an immediate change. Significantly, however, the appellate court corrects the lower court's misapplication of the Equal Protection standard. Rather than intentional discrimination, the appropriate standard is intermediate scrutiny -- when state actors classify based on sex, they must have an "exceedingly persuasive justification" for the classification. Because it's hard to imagine a court concluding that the principal's falsified justification was a "persuasive" one, I think this aspect of the decision makes it much more likely that the plaintiff will prevail on the merits when the question of the constitutionality of Vermilion's single-sex classes returns to the district court. Moreover, the appellate court faulted the lower court for failing to consider plaintiff's argument that the single-sex classes violate Title IX, so this too will provide alternate grounds for the plaintiff to prevail.

The appellate court today acknowledged that if Vermilion Parish curtails its single-sex classes, the litigation will be moot. If it continues, however, the case will proceed and the district court will analyze the constitutionality and statutory validity of its program under the correct standards of Equal Protection and Title IX.