The Sanford School Department has run afoul of the American Civil Liberties Union, which in some circles could be considered a bad thing, but in others might be thought worthy of special commendation.

What’s the heinous evil that Sanford is guilty of, in the eyes of the hectoring lawyers at the ACLU? Better sit down before you read how badly Sanford’s educators are abusing their young charges: They have been letting boys and girls in the fifth and sixth grades at the Willard Elementary School attend separate classes! On a voluntary basis! With parental approval!

Of course, the ACLU isn’t just picking on Sanford alone. As columnist Robert Knight (himself a graduate of Cape Elizabeth schools) said in a May 23 essay in The Washington Times, “The ACLU has launched a nationwide jihad against single-sex education (in public schools), in which boys and girls are separated into classes designed to enhance each sex’s learning capabilities.”

He then quotes an ACLU news release: “We are sending demand letters to school districts in Florida, Maine, Virginia, West Virginia, Mississippi and Alabama, insisting that they take steps to end single-sex programs that rely on and promote archaic and harmful sex stereotypes.”

The ACLU says it is also seeking records from Wisconsin, North Carolina, South Carolina, Washington, Massachusetts, Indiana, Idaho and Illinois “so that we can better understand the scope and parameters of the single-sex programs operating in those states.”

According to the website of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education (www.singlesexschools.org), single-sex education has been growing in popularity since the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act was passed, allowing local educational agencies to use “Innovative Programs” funds to support same-gender schools and classrooms “consistent with existing law.”

NASSPE says the U.S. Department of Education loosened its Title IX regulation in 2006 to diminish prohibitions on single-sex education, with the result that today, there are “at least 95 single-sex public schools, and more than 445 public coed schools offer single-sex classrooms.”

So, single-sex education is so “terrible” that it has spread to hundreds of schools in at least 14 states. Why might it have done that?

“Simply separating boys and girls doesn’t guarantee success, (but) schools that use best practices for gender-specific teaching may be more successful at teaching to boys’ and girls’ strengths,” says NASSPE Executive Director Leonard Sax, a psychologist and family physician. “What we’re doing right now — pretending that gender doesn’t matter — is not working,” he says. “We are losing ground.”

Numerous studies showing U.S. students falling far behind those of other industrialized nations, especially in science and math scores, would seem to confirm that.

Still, the academic research on the results of same-sex public school classrooms is mixed.

For example, a 2003 University of Virginia study found that boys who attended single-sex schools were more than twice as likely to pursue interests in subjects such as art, music, drama and foreign languages compared with boys of comparable ability who attended coed schools.

A 2005 Cambridge University study affirmed those results in British schools, reporting “the single-sex classroom format was remarkably effective at boosting boys’ performance particularly in English and foreign languages, as well as improving girls’ performance in math and science.”

But others disagree. The American Association of University Women published a study in 1998 that says boys and girls thrive on a good education, regardless of whether the school is single-sex or coeducational.

Where does that leave Sanford’s Willard School? Facing charges that the school system “does not have a good enough reason” to satisfy the ACLU’s exacting standards, according to Zack Heiden, a spokesman for the association’s Maine chapter, as quoted in the May 25 Weekly Observer, which covers Sanford and nearby communities.

Sanford School Committee Chairman Don Jamison defended his department’s program to the paper by noting it is not only voluntary, it is so popular it has a waiting list.

Nevertheless, the paper reported, the ACLU has “demanded” that Sanford eliminate the program, and threatened, “If such programs are not ended, the ACLU will consider further legal action, including filing lawsuits and administrative complaints with state and federal agencies.”

But, as the ACLU itself admitted to the paper, single-sex education in public schools is not by itself unconstitutional.

Without definitive evidence that the practice is harmful, and with parents and students eager to participate, it’s hard to see the ACLU’s actions as anything but heavy-handed and unfairly coercive — and apparently based on the ideological viewpoint that there are no differences between the ways boys and girls learn, a claim that numerous neurological studies, along with common sense and experience, show to be untrue.

Thus, it seems clear that the proper place to file the ACLU’s complaint isn’t with state bureaucrats or the courts.

It’s with the Sanford schools’ anti-bullying program.

M.D. Harmon, a retired journalist and military officer, is a freelance writer. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]