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Equal Education Opportunity for Women: How Should It Be Defined?

Handout: Background

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The struggle for making the Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection Clause a reality for all Americans has often centered on issues of educational opportunity. In Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896), the Supreme Court decided that railroads could segregate passengers by race, under the doctrine of "separate-but-equal." This doctrine was soon applied to segregating students in public schools by race. It was reversed by the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, 347 U.S. 483 (1954), in which the Court declared segregation in public education violated the Equal Protection Clause because such segregation was inherently unequal.

While national policy makers struggled to make integrated education a reality, the call for equal educational opportunity sounded by the Brown decision led to action to equalize such opportunity in areas other than race. The Rehabilitation Act and the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (reauthorized in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) provided improved educational opportunities for students with special needs related to physical, mental, and emotional disabilities. Also, the Bilingual Education Act and the Equal Educational Opportunity Act equalized opportunity for students whose native language is not English.

The concern for equal opportunity in education has also focused on inequalities experienced by female students. This concern caused Congress to pass Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which required that girls be given school program opportunities equal to those of boys. In the development of policy for gender equality in education, whether based on Title IX or (as in U.S. v. Commonwealth of Virginia and Commonwealth of Virginia v. U.S.) on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, one of the issues has been deciding when and where activities should provide for "separate-but-equal" programs and when and where the "separate-but-equal" doctrine was as invalid in matters of gender discrimination as in racial discrimination.

U.S. v. Commonwealth of Virginia and Commonwealth of Virginia v. U.S. is a recent case in which the Supreme Court was asked to decide a matter of equal protection in education. Virginia and the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) claimed that, in order to be effective, the military program at VMI must be limited to males only. In response to demands for female admission to VMI, Virginia proposed funding a "comparable" military-training program for women at a private women's liberal arts college in the state. The Supreme Court was called upon to decide whether the Equal Protection Clause can be satisfied with this "separate-but-equal" arrangement, given the special, unique needs associated with military training, or whether equal protection requires VMI to become coeducational regardless of the claimed benefits of all-male military training.

>>Equal Education Opportunity for Women: How Should It Be Defined
>>Handout: Terms
>>Handout: A Case of Alleged Sex Discrimination
>>Handout: Background
>>Handout: The Fourteenth Amendment
>>Handout: Legal Factors Related to Equal Protection Cases
>>Handout: The Decision

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