Thursday, August 4, 2005


Single-sex schools
worry about ruling

The court ruling striking down Kamehameha Schools' Hawaiians-only admission policy has some officials with all-male and all-female private schools in Hawaii worried that their policies could be challenged.

"It scares me, because if they can do this to Kamehameha Schools, what power do we have?" said Sister Joan of Arc Souza, principal of 390-student, all-female Saint Francis School.

"We also choose our students based on specific criteria. Does this mean we're going to be in trouble, too?" she said.

The answer, legal experts say, is probably not.

A 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel said Kamehameha Schools' policy of admitting only students with Hawaiian blood was "unlawful race discrimination." It based the ruling on an 1866 civil-rights statute that forbade discrimination on the basis of race, said Aviam Soifer, dean of the University of Hawaii law school.

That same statute said nothing about gender discrimination, which was not a concern at the time, he said. Later, civil-rights acts have upheld the legality of private single-sex schools, although those that are federally subsidized are more open to legal challenge, he added.

Whether single-sex schools are now more legally vulnerable is "an interesting and important question, but the answer is no, because (the Kamehameha ruling) was based on statute, not the Constitution," he said.

None of the single-sex local private schools contacted by the Star-Bulletin have had their policies challenged. Still, officials with some of the half-dozen such schools fear the ruling could open a Pandora's box of litigation fueled by intense competition for private-school slots and the relatively low tuition at single-sex schools compared with larger institutions like Punahou School or Iolani School.

"Something like this always starts people investigating and looking to see who else they can get," Souza said. "Even if you're OK legally, you have to hire lawyers, which takes money away from the school's mission of educating the students."

Sacred Hearts Academy's Head of School Betty White said the school accepts no federal funding and will avoid it in the future, following the lead of Kamehameha Schools, which discontinued its federally subsidized Junior ROTC program three years ago in a precautionary move as the legal clouds gathered.

"We've been real sensitive to that since we saw the stand Kamehameha Schools took. But even though they took that stand, they still lost this ruling," White said.

Some private schools on the mainland have been challenged over their admission policy, typically those that accept state funding.

But local private-school operators say a single-sex learning environment serves a specific and beneficial educational purpose, backed by studies showing boys and girls learn in different ways and at different rates.

White said that even if Sacred Hearts' admission policy remains unchallenged, the Kamehameha ruling could still affect her school.

If Kamehameha Schools is forced to accept significant numbers of non-Hawaiians, some of the best students at her school might seek admission to Kamehameha, enticed by its relatively low tuition of less than $2,000 a year.

"We all would face increased competition. That would have big impact on all private schools," she said.

Her school already has felt the effects of Kamehameha Schools' neighbor island campuses that have opened in recent years, keeping many Kamehameha students on their home islands when they might otherwise attend Kamehameha's main Oahu campus.

That has opened more spots at the Oahu campus, which are luring away Sacred Hearts students, particularly in the upper grade levels, when class sizes expand, she said. "We're feeling it already in grades 7 and 9. That's when they bring in bigger numbers and take away those we have enrolled here," White said.

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