AUGUSTA, Maine — The Legislature’s Education Committee on Tuesday rejected a bill that would have allowed public schools to offer single-gender classes. Committee members questioned whether the bill would have conflicted with a federal law that says, in most cases, single-gender classrooms are illegal.
The issue came to light last year when the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine demanded that the Sanford School Department stop offering four single-sex classrooms at Willard Elementary School. After the ACLU called the practice discriminatory, the school district stopped offering the classes after four years of doing so to avoid legal costs.
The U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, as well as other state and federal laws, make it illegal for schools to offer single-gender classrooms. In addition to its action in Sanford, the ACLU said last year that it is fighting similar battles about gender-based education programs in schools in Massachusetts, Indiana, Idaho, Washington, Illinois, Alabama, Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia.
Some Education Committee members said they were uncomfortable working on a bill that would affect so many areas of the law, many of which are outside the committee’s jurisdiction.
“I don’t think we should be advising on changes to the Maine Human Rights Act,” said Sen. Christopher Johnson, D-Somerville.
Rep. Bruce MacDonald, D-Boothbay, the committee’s House chairman, said he initially supported the bill but has changed his mind after learning more about how it would conflict with federal laws.
“The Sanford school could consult federal law and regulations and achieve the results they want,” said MacDonald. “I don’t think we need a state law. A state law will probably muddy it up rather than clarify it.”
Donna Lisnik, principal at Presque Isle High School, told the Bangor Daily News last year that the school has offered a girls-only freshman algebra class for about two decades. She said the school department was challenged about the program in the 1990s, but prevailed after changing the class’s name to Algebra I with an Emphasis on Women in Mathematics. Although the course is open to any student, Lisnik said a male student has never enrolled in it
Rep. Matthew Pouliot, R-Augusta, said he hopes the Sanford school department can find a way to continue its single-gender classes.
“What I want to make sure of moving forward is that this particular class can continue because I think it’s effective,” said Pouliot. “I think it’s a sad day when we stand up and get in the way of creativity and innovation in the classroom.”
The committee voted 13-1 against the bill with Rep. Michael McClellan, R-Raymond, casting the only vote in favor. He suggested that he’d like to see the issue explored by Maine’s attorney general.
Shenna Bellows, executive director of the ACLU of Maine, said the schools do have options available in federal law if they want to pursue single-gender classrooms, but the requirements to do so are rigid.
“This bill would have given schools a false sense of security about the legality of this law,” she said after Tuesday’s hearing. “The Legislature made the right decision.”