DETROIT'S decision to set up special academies open only to boys represented a tragic step backward to the day of separate-and-unequal education for women.
For 300 years women in American have struggled to gain an equal shot at schooling.
The attitude has always been the same: Educate boys first -- and better -- because they need the opportunity more than girls.
Detroit merely recycled that old discriminatory refrain, offering to throw a life preserver to boys and leave girls to fend for themselves.
That is why we sued to let girls attend the new schools. Then a federal judge agreed with us. Now we will sit down with the Detroit Board of Education to try to work out a plan for admitting girls to these new academies.
No one can quarrel with the need to provide better education for urban boys. The statistics of school failure, drug addiction and violence call for a national effort to save the next generation of young men from a cycle of poverty and despair.
But urban girls are drowning too. Fully 45 percent of girls in Detroit drop out of school; that is not a much better rate than the 55 percent figure for boys.
As U.S. District Judge George Woods put it in his ruling on the Detroit "male academies": "There is no evidence the school system is failing males because girls attend schools with them. Girls fail, too."
The focus is on boys because enough of them draw attention to their failure by turning to drugs and lawlessness. The girls also fail, but they withdraw into themselves, sometimes becoming teen-age mothers.
In American history, whenever educational resources have been scarce, the first ones pushed out of the lifeboat have been women.
It was not until 1837 that the first woman was allowed to graduate from an American university; no black woman graduated from a college until 1862.
Female lawyers and doctors over the age of 40 remember when they were a lonely minority in school, trying to make it in an all-male world.
Today federal and state laws protect a woman's right to equal educational opportunity.
Boys and girls in the cities should not be forced to fight each other for a good education.
We are rich enough to educate all our children. But 10 years of cuts in the national education budget have left everyone to fight over the crumbs.
Helen R. Neuborne is executive director of the National Organization for Women's Legal Defense and Education Fund.