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"Separate Is Better,'' claims Susan Estrich in the May 22, 1994, issue of The New York Times Magazine. The campaign manager for Michael S. Dukakis during his 1988 Presidential bid and a professor of law and political science at the University of Southern California, Ms. Estrich, herself a graduate of a women's college, argues the case for single-sex education in an article by that name.

She mines studies and statistics, such as gender disparities in scores on the P.S.A.T.--18,000 boys place in the top categories while only 8,000 girls do--to show traditional, coed schools continually shortchanging female students. On the other side of the coin, her search through the lists of female doctorates in engineering and mathematics, women in Who's Who, and on boards of Fortune 1,000 companies produces a preponderance of women's-college graduates.

Single-sex education remains largely a private enterprise in America, however, a fact that the author attributes to "the price of committing to formal equality instead of committing to real opportunity.''

Forty years after the Brown v. Board of Education decision found segregated schools inherently unequal, Ms. Estrich warns against the "knee-jerk application'' of that landmark ruling to separate classes and schools for girls in public schools.

Public choice, not "legalese,'' should determine the course of separate education, she concludes. "If the experiments with girls-only math classes or boys-only classes should fail, then educators can be trusted to abandon them. But short of that, let the educators and the parents and the students decide, and leave the lawyers and judges out of it.''

But when separation is the product not of choice or privilege, but of poverty and racial isolation, the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education is very much at issue.

In an article included in a special issue of The Nation devoted to the Brown decision (May 23, 1994), Jonathan Kozol pronounces the U.S. education system still fiercely divided by race.

The author of Savage Inequalities writes of his concern for the current "romanticism'' about ghetto schools in America. The apartheid of urban schools has been disguised as democracy, he maintains, with the schools "pretending to choose what has in fact been chosen for them by America, and even claiming to find merit in an isolation that may nurture cultural autonomy.''

He laments not only the isolation of black and Latino students in segregated, inner-city schools, but also the quiet cultural acceptance that accompanies it.

Educators too often use false terms of freedom and empowerment, he says, while "the cage itself, the institution of the ghetto school as permanent disfigurement upon the body of American democracy, goes virtually unquestioned.''

Mr. Kozol calls on school leaders to move beyond their own, constricted borders, to open up "the instruments of economic power'' now denied their students, and to renew the struggle for desegregated schools. The price of passivity is just too great, he argues, and will lead to riots in the nation's cities for an equality long denied.

In a June 1994, article in Harper's, the writer James Traub also rallies for a rededication to the principle of desegregation. He finds, though, that the American social landscape has become inhospitable to such a battle.

"The idea of desegregation has been shaken by a crisis of faith, and by a contraction of sympathies,'' Mr. Traub writes. Distrust in integregation within the black community, growing ethnocentrism in urban areas, and a white, suburban fear of the city's crime and violence have stopped the momentum for justice and integration in public schooling, he claims.

The shift in focus to the resources of ailing schools, rather than their composition, is misleading, he suggests: "The new choice, it seems, is between separate but equal and separate but unequal.''

It is a bad bargain to trade off dollars for segregation, he says, finding in the state of Connecticut a vivid illustration.

Focusing on Hartford, Conn.,--one of the 10 poorest cities in the country, though located in the state with the highest per-capita income--Mr. Traub explores the gulf between education in city and suburb.

At McDonough Elementary School in the Hartford slums, he shows, 72 percent of the graduating 6th graders scored at the remedial level on statewide reading tests. But at the Hopewell School in the Glastonbury suburbs, close to 89 percent of students registered in the "excellent'' range on the same tests.

The Hopewell school, Mr. Traub explains, spends less money per capita than McDonough, and also deals with a shortage of space. It is not mere financing, then, that makes the difference in educational achievement. "What happens when inner-city schools reach funding parity with the suburbs and the poor kids are still riding a conveyor belt to a second-class life?'' he asks.

New answers to questions of race and equality in schools, he suggests, may lie in a pending case in the Connecticut courts: Sheff v. O'Neill. This desegregation lawsuit does not claim racial discrimination per se, but points to poverty as the defining problem of equal educational opportunity. "It argues that poor children need access to a nonpoor educational environment, rather than that black children need access to a racially integrated environment,'' Mr. Traub explains.

Physically separated by the ghetto, poor children have no connection to the middle-class world, or to the success it can offer, he argues. They learn to assume, and accept, their own failure in school and in life.

"If you accept this finding--that racial isolation and academic underachievement and poverty are inseparable,'' he writes, "you conclude that although desegregation is only a partial solution, separate but equal is no solution at all.''

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