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Vorchheimer v. School District of Philadelphia and Matthew W. Costanzo

filed: March 16, 1976.



Gibbons, Circuit Judge, Markey,*fn* Chief Judge of Court of Customs and Patent Appeals and Weis, Circuit Judge. Gibbons, Circuit Judge.

Author: Weis


WEIS, Circuit Judge.

Do the Constitution and laws of the United States require that every public school, in every public school system in the Nation, be coeducational? Stated another way, do our Constitution and laws forbid the maintenance by a public school board, in a system otherwise coeducational, of a limited number of single-sex high schools in which enrollment is voluntary and the educational opportunities offered to girls and boys are essentially equal? This appeal presents those questions and, after careful consideration, we answer negatively. Accordingly, we vacate the district court's judgment which held that the school board policy was impermissible.*fn1

Plaintiff is a teen-age girl who graduated with honors from a junior high school in Philadelphia. She then applied to Central High School, a public school in the city, but was refused admission because that institution is restricted to male students. After that setback, she filed this class action in the United States District Court seeking relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 from alleged unconstitutional discrimination. After a trial, the district court granted an injunction, ordering that she and other qualified female students be admitted to Central.

The Philadelphia School District offers four types of senior high schools: academic, comprehensive, technical and magnet. Although this suit is aimed at only an academic school, it is necessary to review the roles of other schools as well.

Comprehensive schools provide a wide range of courses, including those required for college admission, and offer advanced placement classes for students who are intellectually able to progress at a faster than average rate. The criterion for enrollment in the comprehensive schools is residency within a designated area. Although most of these schools are co-ed, two admit only males and one is restricted to female students. At the time the injunction was granted, plaintiff was enrolled at George Washington High School, a coeducational comprehensive school.

Academic high schools have high admission standards and offer only college preparatory courses. There are but two such schools in Philadelphia, and they accept students from the entire city rather than operating on a neighborhood basis. Central is restricted to males, and Girls High School, as the name implies, admits only females.

Central High School was founded in 1836 and has maintained a reputation for academic excellence. For some years before 1939, it was designated a comprehensive rather than an academic high school as it is presently. Its graduates both before and after 1939 have made notable contributions to the professions, business, government and academe.

Girls High has also achieved high academic standing. It was founded in 1848 and became an academic school in 1893. Its alumnae have compiled enviable records and have distinguished themselves in their chosen diverse fields. It now has a faculty of more than 100 and a student body of approximately 2,000, about the same as those of Central.

Enrollment at either school is voluntary and not by assignment. Only 7% of students in the city qualify under the stringent standards at these two schools, and it is conceded that plaintiff met the scholastic requirements of both. The Philadelphia school system does not have a co-ed academic school with similar scholastic requirements for admission.

The courses offered by the two schools are similar and of equal quality. The academic facilities are comparable, with the exception of those in the scientific field where Central's are superior. The district court concluded "that [generally] the education available to the female students at Girls is comparable to that available to the male students at Central." Moreover, "[graduates] of both Central and Girls High, as well as the other senior high schools of Philadelphia," have been and are accepted by the most prestigious universities.

The plaintiff has stipulated that "the practice of educating the sexes separately is a technique that has a long history and world-wide acceptance." Moreover, she agrees that "there are educators who regard education in a single-sex school as a natural and reasonable educational approach." In addition to this stipulation, the defendants presented the testimony of Dr. J. Charles Jones, an expert in the field of education. Dr. Jones expressed a belief, based on his study of New Zealand's sex-segregated schools, that students in that educational environment had a higher regard for scholastic achievement and devoted more time to homework than those in co-ed institutions. The district judge commented that even had the parties not stipulated to the educational value of the practice, "this Court would probably have felt compelled to validate the sex-segregated school on the basis of Dr. Jones' hypotheses concerning the competition for adolescent energies in a coed school and its detrimental effect on student learning and academic achievement."*fn2

Before deciding which school she wished to attend, the plaintiff visited a number of them and developed some definite opinions. As to Girls High, she commented, "I just didn't like the impression it gave me. I didn't think I would be able to go there for three years and not be harmed in any way by it." As to Central, she said, "I liked it there. I liked the atmosphere and also what I heard about it, about its academic excellence." She was somewhat dissatisfied with her education at George Washington High School because of her belief that the standards which the teacher set for the students were not high enough.*fn3

The trial judge found the gender based classification of students at the two schools to lack a "fair and substantial relationship to the School Board's legitimate interest" and enjoined the practice.

The court's factual finding that Girls and Central are academically and functionally equivalent establishes that the plaintiff's desire to attend Central is based on personal preference rather than being founded on an objective evaluation.

A fair summary of the parties' positions, therefore, is that:

1. the local school district has chosen to make available on a voluntary basis the time honored educational alternative of sexually-segregated high schools;

2. the schools for boys and girls are comparable in quality, academic standing, and prestige;

3. the plaintiff prefers to go to the boys' school because of its academic reputation and her personal reaction to Central. She submitted no factual evidence that attendance at Girls High would constitute psychological or other injury;

4. the deprivation asserted is that of the opportunity to attend a specific school, not that of an opportunity to obtain an education at a school with comparable academic facilities, faculty and prestige.

With this factual background, we now turn to a review of the legal issues. We look first to federal statutory law to determine if it resolves the question raised here.

The financial assistance granted to educational institutions by the federal government has led to its everincreasing influence in a field which in times past was considered the domain of state, local or private activity. It is not surprising that gender based admission standards have been the subject of Congressional deliberation.

In 1972 Congress provided that the benefits of educational programs funded through federal monies should be available to all persons without discrimination based on sex. 20 U.S.C. §§ 1681 et seq. The statute applies, however, to only specified types of educational institutions and excludes from its coverage the admission policies of secondary schools.*fn4 The bill which passed the House applied to all educational establishments and, if it had become law, would have required that all single-sex schools, primary and secondary, public and private, become coeducational.

However, the Senate proposal, which was the one enacted, eliminated these provisions for reasons which became apparent during debate on the measure. On the floor of the Senate, Senator Bayh offered an amendment to restrict the application of the Act. He explained:

"As my colleagues know, a similar amendment on the House side was the center of some controversy because many felt that the admissions policies of too many schools were covered without sufficient study and debate. Because of the time pressures on the House side, long preparation was not possible. One result of the House approach is that all single-sex elementary and secondary institutions of education - both public and private - would be required to become coeducational. While this may be a desirable goal, no one even knows how many single-sex schools exist on the elementary and secondary levels or what special qualities of the schools might argue for a continued single-sex status." 118 Cong. Rec. 5804 (February 28, 1972).

"In any event, I believe specific hearings are needed to answer these questions which had not been raised at the time of the 1970 hearings. Since there are also a number of high schools which are single sex, a similar study is needed on the question of requiring them to admit students of both sexes. I have been amazed to learn that the Office of Education does not even keep statistics on how many elementary and secondary schools - even public schools - are restricted in admissions to one sex. After these questions have been properly addressed, then Congress can make a fully informed decision on the question of which - if any - schools should be exempted." 118 Cong. Rec. at 5807 (February 28, 1972).

For further discussion see the Senate debate at 118 Cong. Rec. 5803-5815 (February 28, 1972). These narrowing provisions of the amendment became a part of the Act as it was finally passed by Congress. See 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a)(1)-(5).

During that same year, the House passed HB 13915 entitled "The Equal Educational Opportunities Act," legislation aimed against busing as a means of securing racial balance in schools. The original bill, which was referred to committee, contained no reference to discrimination based on sex, and the hearings were devoted to testimony on the busing issue. For reasons not explained in the committee report, the word "sex" was added in certain parts of the bill. The summary of the bill as it was reported out of committee included these comments:

" Section 2. Policy and purpose

Subsection (a) of this section declares it to be the policy of the United States that all public school children are entitled to equal educational opportunity without regard ...

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