WASHINGTON – After years of debate, the federal government has formally cleared the way for the funding of single-sex public schools throughout the country — a movement that supporters say will benefit poor and minority children but opponents argue is discriminatory under gender equality rules.
"Single-sex schools can provide an important contribution and the people it will benefit the most are disadvantaged children," said Cornelius Riordan, a professor of sociology at Providence College and panelist at a Wednesday conference at the American Enterprise Institute.
Next Wednesday, the Department of Education is expected to publish its proposed rules regarding the recent revision to Title IX of the 1972 Education Amendments, which outlaws federal funding for education programs that discriminate on the basis of gender. The revision clarifies the rules in which same-sex schools are concerned, and endorses such schools as long as there are equal funding opportunities for both sexes.
The revisions were spearheaded by a bipartisan group of lawmakers and the final language was included in the "No Child Left Behind" education bill signed by President Bush in January.
Numerous lawmakers who spoke in favor of the revisions pointed to mounting evidence that some children will learn better in same-sex environments — benefiting from more rigorous academic routines, leadership opportunities, freedom from stereotypes and discipline.
"Sometimes, in some circumstances we find that girls do better in a single-sex atmosphere and boys do better in a single-sex atmosphere," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, R-Texas, in a hearing last year on the bill. "Drop the barriers. Open the options for public schools."
She was joined by Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., who pointed to the Young Women’s Leadership Academy in New York City.
"We know this has energized students and parents," she said in the same hearing. "I believe public school choice should be expanded and as broadly as possible."
But not everyone agrees. The American Association of University Women has consistently argued that Title IX prohibits single-sex schools and that the benefits of such an education have been exaggerated.
"While single-sex education experiments do produce some positive results for some students in some cases, much of the research indicates that the properties of a good education, not a sex-segregated environment, make the difference," the group said in a statement in January. The AAUW did not return calls for comment Wednesday.
Opponents also point to a California study released last June that found that gender stereotyping, harassment and other areas of concern in today’s co-educational environment do not necessarily diminish in single-sex schools. The state study reviewed 12 pilot single-sex programs there.
Rosemary Salomone, a professor of law at St. John’s University of Law who has written extensively in support of single sex schools, said Wednesday that there is "no clear evidence that single-sex schools improve achievement," and added that such schools are "not an ideal way to prepare boys and girls for personal relationships."
However, there is a growing body of evidence — both empirical and anecdotal — to suggest single-sex programs encourage student interest and empowerment, she said.
Riordan, who has conducted studies on disadvantaged students in single-sex schools, said he has found empirical evidence.
"They do work to improve academic achievement – but it is limited to students of low economic status and those who are disadvantaged historically," he said.
Maureen Grogan, executive director of the Young Women's Leadership Foundation, which runs private middle and secondary schools for girls in New York and Chicago, said she has seen for herself the benefits of same-sex classrooms.
"This is something that the parents and the students want – the demand is there," Grogan said, adding that many girls have told her that they are happy to have a "voice" and personal relationships with teachers they didn’t necessarily have before.
"The experiences I’ve had here I can honestly say I wouldn’t have had anywhere else," said Tanisha Smalls, a senior at New York's YWLA. Smalls is headed to Williams College next fall where she will study biology.