Single-Sex Schools Score Big Victory

The Bush administration is following through on a promise to make it easier for school districts across the country to operate girls-only and boys-only schools, drawing praise from advocates who say parents will now have more choices for improving their children's education.

“We think we are going to see all-boys schools and all-girls schools popping up all over the country,” said Tom Carroll, founder and chairman of Brighter Choice Charter Schools (search) in Albany, N.Y. “[The administration] is basically stopping a 30-year effort to stamp out the efforts of single-sex schools. They’re basically calling off the dogs, so to speak.”

But not everyone is happy with the plan. Paving the way for girls-only and boys-only public schools and classrooms means tinkering with Title IX (search) of the 1972 Educational Amendments Act (search). Critics say the administration is undermining three decades of gender-based civil rights progress.

“Single-sex education basically says we will separate, but everyone will have an equal education,” said Nancy Zirkin, deputy director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (search), a coalition of 180 civil rights organizations. “We know that in the context of race that is unacceptable, and we don’t know how in the context of gender it can be acceptable.”

“It would turn back the clock to a time when girls were excluded from athletics and various levels of advanced education — when girls were not expected to rise to the level or complete the task,” said Jocelyn Samuels, vice president of the National Women’s Law Center (search), who added that separating boys and girls will revive old stereotypes and undermine efforts to teach tolerance and understanding.

Over the years, Title IX regulations have been synonymous with providing equal access for females to scholastic sports, though it addresses anti-discrimination in all educational settings.

The most well-known element of Title IX are restrictions on publicly-funded high schools and colleges only to offer male sports programs when they can also provide an equal number of female programs. Title IX rules also say a single-gender classroom can be established as long as there is equal access to the same programs for the opposite gender.

As part of "No Child Left Behind," (search) educational reforms enacted in 2002, the Bush administration was permitted to take a look at Title IX stipulations and perhaps relax them to allow school districts to open single-gender schools without being forced to open a mirror school for the opposite gender. The new rule, which is expected to go into effect after a 45-day public comment period on the proposal, states that districts only have to ensure that the same educational opportunities exist for the other gender, and that they can be offered in a nearby co-ed school.

As far as same-sex classes within a co-ed school are concerned, according to the new rule, the district will still have to justify the need, and offer equal opportunities for both genders, but the requirements are more relaxed under the administration’s proposal.

Department of Education officials say girls-only and boys-only schools are and always will be voluntary for districts and parents.

Single-gender schools are already operating. The Young Women’s Leadership Foundation (search), which runs a successful girls-only school in the Harlem section of New York City, has achieved a 100 percent college placement rate. Its administrators hail the changes as opening up new opportunities for minority, inner-city youth.

“Single-sex education is not for everyone, it is a choice,” said foundation director Maureen Grogan. “Parents and students in public schools deserve the opportunity to choose single-sex schools, just like their peers in private, parochial and yeshiva schools.”

Supporters of girls-only and boys-only schools also say evidence is mounting to indicate that boys and girls can learn better in such atmospheres. Carroll said girls can achieve more in non-traditional subjects like math and science. Boys, particularly those coming from disadvantaged families and with emotional problems, benefit from more focused, disciplined curricula. Both have positive results from stripping away social pressures of co-education.

“We found in our schools, in the last year and a half, tremendous differences where the boys and girls were learning because academically, we’ve been able to tailor to what their needs are,” he said. Brighter Choice runs two schools — one for boys and one for girls, from kindergarten through grade 10. The Brighter Choice schools have been receiving public money because they comply with the old Title IX rules.

Opponents of girls-only and boys-only schools say there is no hard evidence to suggest that separating the genders in school will help solve these problems. Currently, 24 publicly-funded girls-only and boys-only schools in the United States are subjects of educational studies that have yet to be concluded.

While some critics say they worry that splitting the sexes will hurt girls trying to achieve academic equality, supporters point to all-female schools to show that the freedom to break free of gender expectations has resulted in exceptional female leaders and academicians.

“If my child is a young girl, and I see promise in mathematics and science but she is shy in social settings, I may come to the conclusion that she would do better in a single-sex setting,” said Deborah Perry Piscione, senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum (search) and co-author of “Unfinished Business: A Democrat and a Republican Take on the 10 Most Important Issues Women Face."

“I want to put her in the position where she is going to excel,” Piscione said.

But Samuels said she fears just the opposite will happen.

“We’d be teaching kids that stereotypes would be permissible, like parental beliefs that girls are less interested in math and science,” she said.