The Virginia Military Institute Case
 
What did the Supreme Court say in the "VMI case" about publicly-funded single-sex education?
In 1991, the United States Justice Department initiated a lawsuit against the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), which had been a males-only college since its founding in 1839. The Justice Department asserted that VMI, as a state school, could not legally refuse to accept women. Although the federal District Court initially ruled in favor of VMI, the Circuit Court, on appeal, agreed with the Justice Department: the state of Virginia could not fund a single-sex public college for men as long as there was no comparable state school for women.

The Circuit Court offered three remedies: either 1) begin accepting women at VMI, or 2) stop accepting state funds, or 3) develop a "comparable" alternative for women. VMI and the state of Virginia chose the third option. They created the "Virginia Women's Institute for Leadership," to be located at Mary Baldwin College, a private college for women. The Circuit Court approved the alternative, but the United States Justice Department didn't like it, so the case was appealed to the Supreme Court.

On June 26, 1996, the Supreme Court issued its decision. The Court concluded that the Baldwin program was not comparable to the program at VMI. VMI offered advanced courses and degrees in engineering, computer science, and physics, none of which were available at Baldwin. VMI had better-trained and better-paid academic faculty with more advanced degrees. VMI had basketball, soccer, and lacrosse fields, a swimming pool, indoor and outdoor rifle ranges, an obstacle course, martial arts facilities, a large indoor track, and a football stadium. Baldwin had just two "all-purpose" fields and one indoor gym.

VMI and the state of Virginia argued that the Baldwin program was comparable to VMI, because the state subsidy per student was the same for both VMI and the Baldwin program: $7400 per student. However, VMI had 1,300 cadets, while the Baldwin program had only 40 students. Even with the special additional monies scheduled to be given to the Baldwin program under the scheme proposed by Virginia, the Court estimated that over ten years, VMI would gain $220 million vs. $35 million for the woman's program at Mary Baldwin (see p. 37 of the majority opinion).

The Court's majority opinion stressed that what was problematic in this case was not single-sex education per se, but the absence of a truly comparable opportunity for women. "Single-sex education affords pedagogical benefits to at least some students," the majority opinion affirmed. "That reality is uncontested in this litigation" (see page 18 of the majority opinion).

In a concurring opinion, Chief Justice Rehnquist emphasized that "Had Virginia made a genuine effort to devote comparable public resources to a facility for women, and followed through on such a plan, it might well have avoided an equal protection violation. . . There was single-sex public education available for men at VMI, but no corresponding single-sex public education available to women. . . It is not the exclusion of women that violates the Equal Protection Clause, but the maintenance of an all-men school without providing any -- much less a comparable -- institution for women." Rehnquist summarized the constitutional requirements for publicly-funded single-sex schools when he said that the State must show ". . . that its interest in educating men in a single-sex environment is matched by its interest in educating women in a single-sex institution. To demonstrate such, the State does not need to create two institutions with the same number of faculty PhD's, similar SAT scores, or comparable athletic fields. Nor would it necessarily require that the women's institution offer the same curriculum as the men's; one could be strong in computer science, the other could be strong in liberal arts. It would be a sufficient remedy, I think, if the two institutions offered the same quality of education and were of the same overall calibre." (See page 9 of Chief Justice Rehnquist's concurrence.)

Contrary to a widespread misunderstanding, the Supreme Court's opinion in this case does not "outlaw" single-sex public education. The crucial test for the Court is whether or not truly comparable programs exist for both sexes.

What does "comparable" mean? As the majority opinion made clear, and as Justice Rehnquist stressed in his concurrence, "comparable" does not mean "identical." The Court found the program at Mary Baldwin college to be not comparable to the VMI program, not because VMI had a football stadium etc. and Mary Baldwin didn't, but because the difference in funding was so large.

Bottom line: "comparable" means "costing about the same amount of money." And that means the same TOTAL amount of money, not the same amount of money per student. If the state is going to spend $200 million on single-sex education for boys, then the state must spend about $200 million on single-sex education for girls, even if fewer girls choose a single-sex program. Or vice versa.


 

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