The District’s decision to pump $20 million into a program that focuses on boosting the academic achievement of minority males is under fire in a new study, which concludes that minority females are also lagging far behind their white counterparts.
The American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital is questioning the legality of the taxpayer-funded “Empowering Males of Color” initiative. Its study found that city officials did not provide compelling reasons to create a program that excludes female students, a potential violation of federal laws barring gender discrimination.
“Based on the documents produced, DCPS [D.C. Public Schools] is unlikely to be able to justify the exclusion of girls from any of the sponsored programs, because DCPS’s own data lead to the unavoidable conclusion that the racial achievement gap impacts girls as well as boys of color,” the ACLU study said.
In the District, white students far outperform black students on standardized tests, and black male students are the lowest-performing demographic. But minority female students are also underperforming, and the ACLU’s “Leaving Girls Behind” report contends that it is unfair for the school system to paint the problem as a gender issue instead of a more broad racial one.
D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced in January 2015 that the city would invest $20 million in the city’s initiative for black and Hispanic male students, including an all-boys college preparatory high school east of the Anacostia River, citywide tutoring programs, and gender-based academies and activities at low-performing schools.
The program also seeks private funding and is similar to the idea behind President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” initiative, which aims to keep young minority men in the classroom and out of prison.
“Far too many students are not benefiting from the progress we are making,” Henderson said at a news conference last year. “It’s a very real, very urgent problem.”
City leaders have argued that black and Hispanic boys face the lowest graduation rates, with a rate of 48 percent and 57 percent, respectively, compared with the 82 percent of white male students who graduate.
But minority girls aren’t much better off, the ACLU study found. Black and Hispanic girls graduate at a rate of 62 percent and 66 percent, respectively, compared with 91 percent of whites.
The math proficiency rate is 37 percent for black male students, 55 percent for Hispanics and 91 percent for whites. The math proficiency rate is 45 percent for black female students, 61 percent for Hispanics and 93 percent for whites.
The ACLU study also reported that black students are suspended at far higher rates than any other demographic group in the city’s schools, with black male students accounting for 58 percent of suspended students and black female students making up 35 percent of all suspensions; black and Hispanic males make up 43 percent of the students enrolled in D.C. schools.
The ACLU also argues that the city relied on shoddy studies supporting single-sex education benefits that did not meet legal muster and relied on gender stereotypes when laying out why single-sex learning environments are effective.
The “Leaving Girls Behind” report draws on two legal statutes to make its case against the Empowering Males of Color initiative.
The ACLU argues that, under the constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, public schools cannot operate programs that exclude members of one sex unless they have “an exceedingly persuasive justification.” And these single-sex programs cannot be based on “overbroad generalizations about the different talents, capacities, or preferences,” according to law cited by the ACLU.
Title IX, a federal statute, allows publicly funded single-sex education programs under limited circumstances, including that the relationship between the single-sex program and its intended goals is established with supportive data.
The ACLU and some city leaders previously have questioned the Empowering Males of Color program’s legality.
D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine said last year that the program does not violate the Equal Protection Clause because its rationale — to boost achievement among the city’s lowest performing demographic — is “exceedingly persuasive.” He said he would defend the initiative if challenged in court. Racine’s office said Monday that he would be reviewing the ACLU study.
D.C. Public Schools plans to stick with the program.
“We believe in supporting each students’ interests and needs by providing differentiated programming and opportunities that align to those interests and needs,” Michelle Lerner, a school system spokeswoman, wrote in an email.
Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, the executive director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, said the organization is considering filing a lawsuit against the city challenging the program.
Correction: This story was changed to correct that black and Hispanic males make up 43 percent of the students enrolled in D.C. schools, as opposed to all black and Hispanic students making up 43 percent of students.