Separate but equal?

October 30, 2006

The U.S. Department of Education wants to make it easier for school systems to offer single-sex classes, ostensibly out of concern that girls and boys sometimes do better when they are not distracted or intimidated by each other. But many women's groups are rightly worried that separate won't be equal.

This is, after all, the same Department of Education that tried to undermine anti-sex-discrimination enforcement in college athletics last year when it thought no one was paying attention. Now department officials are using a similar tactic of trying to clarify regulations under Title IX, the 1972 law that prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded schools and colleges, to possibly weaken the law.

Some girls and boys perform better when educated separately, but the evidence is not clear whether it's the single sex, role model teachers, extra attention and resources or other factors that account for the difference. And although most school systems try to fulfill their obligation to provide the best possible education for all students through co-educational classes, existing Title IX regulations set out reasonable, but fairly limited, circumstances when single-sex classes or schools are acceptable, such as for human sexuality and physical education classes or to compensate for previous unequal treatment.

Education Secretary Margaret Spellings wants to give local educators even more flexibility to offer single-sex classes, despite the mixed evidence of success. In final regulations scheduled to go into effect next month, the department would allow single-sex classes and extracurricular activities if they are only "substantially related" to a school system's goal of improving student achievement by providing diverse educational opportunities. Student participation in single-sex classes must be voluntary, and for the excluded sex, the school system may provide either a co-educational or a single-sex class that is "substantially equal."

Women's rights advocates wonder whether these wishy-washy standards are really meant to strengthen or weaken opportunities for girls. Unless and until the courts weigh in, school systems will have to hold themselves to higher standards of gender equality to ensure that girls or boys don't become victims of discrimination under the new rules.

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