WASHINGTON - The Bush administration has proposed regulations giving public school districts new freedom to create same-sex classes and schools, as long as "substantially equal" opportunities are provided for the excluded sex.
Supporters and critics alike said the proposed changes represent a major reinterpretation of anti-discrimination laws, some 50 years after the Supreme Court discredited racial segregation in "separate but equal" schools as inherently unequal, and 30 years after Title IX extended the concept to gender.
Under the new rules, educators could create new schools or classes exclusively for students of one sex, and no longer have to demonstrate that they were doing so to remedy past discrimination. In addition, rather than having to ensure that students of the other gender were receiving the same opportunities in a single-sex setting, the new rules would allow them to provide those opportunities in a coed setting.
Federal officials said that the changes would allow schools to offer a greater range of educational options, and that under no circumstances would children be required to attend same-sex schools or classes. The regulations would take effect after a 45-day comment period.
"We are not advocating single-sex schools, and we are not advocating single-sex classrooms," said Kenneth Marcus, who oversees the office for civil rights in the federal Education Department. "We understand that coed remains the norm. We are simply trying to ensure that educators have flexibility to provide more options."
The new regulations drew immediate fire from some women's and civil liberties groups, who said they were in violation of Title IX, the landmark law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in schools. Even some supporters of the new rule suggested that it stood on shaky ground.
"This is not an evolutionary position that they've taken. It's revolutionary," said Randy Tucker, vice president of the board of the National Coalition of Girls Schools. "It's a longstanding position that separate but equal was not a valid standard for education, whether it was by race or gender."
Tucker said the new regulations are certain to face legal challenges.
Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, said the proposed changes "include ample safeguards to ensure nondiscrimination," and could withstand legal challenges.
There are currently 24 same-sex public schools across the country, many of which opened in the past two years, and 93,000 coed public schools.
The issue gained new momentum with the approval of the No Child Left Behind Act, when female senators from both parties voiced support for same-sex education and asked the Education Department to draft guidelines to allow for their growth.
Research on the gains of children in same-sex classrooms vs. coed environments has been inconclusive. A 1998 survey of research by the American Association of University Women found no overall benefit to same-sex classrooms or schools, but some research since then has suggested that girls learn differently than boys and that some students learn better when separated from the opposite sex.
The Bush administration has earmarked $297 million each year for "innovative programs" in education, including single-sex schools. Aspey said the department did not track how much of the money was going to same-sex instruction.