D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) raised questions about the $20 million District of Columbia Public Schools’ (DCPS) Empowering Males of Color (EMOC) initiative. D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced this program on Jan. 21 at Ballou Senior High School.

“The programs and the all boys high school raise serious constitutional questions under the Equal Protection and questions about the lack of conformity with Title IX, Title IX regulations, and the D.C. Human Rights Act,” Cheh said in a Feb. 9 letter to D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine. In the correspondence Cheh requested Racine to issue an opinion on the initiative. A response from Racine has not been published on his website or by any other media sources. He has also not responded to the AFRO.

Title IX is the federal law that mandates that both sexes must have equitable education programs if they are publicly funded.

The EMOC initiative was launched to address the low-test scores, school attendance, and graduation rates of boys of color. The initiative includes a reading and mentoring program, a grant that is available to schools that encourage male academic achievement, and the college prep school. The initiative is the District’s response to President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” program, designed to raise the academic, economic, and social skills of minority boys and young men.

Cheh, Mary

D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3)

Cheh teaches constitutional law at the George Washington University Law School and has served on the council since 2007. Cheh said that while programs to help boys of color are laudable, District girls should not be ignored. “What is potentially illegal is offering educational benefits to boys without offering the same or substantially equal benefits to girls,” Cheh said in the Racine letter. “Our female minority students face problems just as serious and debilitating as their male counterparts.”

Cheh is not the only prominent District female who is uneasy with the EMOC’s college prep school. “I think that in the old days it was a good idea to educate children based on gender separately but today, I don’t think it will work,” said Sandra “S.S.” Seegars, candidate for the Ward 8 council vacancy. “Children need to know how to deal with the opposite sex.”

D.C. Council member David Grosso (I-At Large), does not agree with the purpose of Cheh’s letter to Racine. “I in no way believe that DCPS moving ahead with their EMOC initiative means that they will somehow abandon their commitment to ensuring that our young women also succeed,” Grosso said. “I recognize that there are unique issues facing young women of color and as the chairperson of the Committee on Education, I will continue to push our public schools and my colleagues to address the inequities in areas like school discipline and mental health. However, I know that the overall academic success of DCPS must include improving academic outcomes for our young men of color to ensure that they are able to go further faster.”

Grosso said that he “will continue to support this effort to ensure that we are closing the achievement gaps.”

D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), who serves as the council’s chairman pro tem and is the father of two daughters, supports the initiative, too. “This extraordinary initiative would provide tailored educational opportunities for the District of Columbia’s young men of color,” McDuffie said. “While there is reasonable disagreement with some components of this initiative, we have a responsibility to work together to find real-world solutions for these students.”

McDuffie said that he is sensitive to Cheh’s concerns about the lack of an EMOC-like program for girls of color. “I am acutely aware of the dangers of gender equity in public education,” he said. “In fact, I was proud to re-introduce the ‘Title IX Athletic Equity Act of 2015’, which would promote gender equity in athletic participation, funding, and expenditures. It is significant that the legislation’s title contains the word ‘equity’ instead of ‘equality’; this important distinction recognizes that all programming must be robust, but not that every population has the same needs.”