When state and federal officials discovered public elementary school principal Benjamin Wright had split his enrollment into classes of all boys and all girls this school year, they descended on Seattle’s Thurgood Marshall Elementary School.
State officials said he was violating Title IX, the federal law that prohibits schools from discriminating on the basis of sex. Federal officials were scrutinizing the school, too. But instead of cracking down on single-sex public schools and classes, the Department of Education said last week it should be easier for public schools to follow Mr. Wright’s lead: educate some boys and girls separately.
Department officials announced that they planned to ease a “rigid” interpretation of the gender-equity law to encourage schools to offer single-gender choices for students and parents. The goal, said Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Gerald A. Reynolds, is to “see if we can provide more options.”
The move would scrap a strict interpretation of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 statute, which applies to institutions receiving federal education aid. The law and subsequent court rulings have made it difficult for public schools to organize single-gender classes and schools. Only 11 such public schools exist in the country, according to the Brighter Choice Foundation, an Albany, N-Y.-based nonprofit group studying the issue.
The Education Department is seeking public input for the next 60 days on just how—or how much—to ease regulations on the subject. Then the agency will issue new rules outlining how schools can provide single-sex education without running afoul of federal law.
That direction worries some groups, particularly the American Civil Liberties Union and a few women’s organizations.
“It’s a red flag immediately if you’re talking about changing long-standing civil rights legislation ... that has survived the test of time,” said Leslie Annexstein, a senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center, based in Washington. “We’re concerned about how the department might be trying to circumvent the law.”
The move toward flexibility stems from the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, which encourages innovative programs that provide more choice. A small clause in the massive law, signed by President Bush in January, called for the secretary of education to issue guidelines on single- sex programs 120 days after the law was enacted. School districts will be able to tap $3 million in federal grant money appropriated in the fiscal 2002 budget for single-gender education.
Current law permits public schools to have single-gender classes in physical and sex education, said Nancy Zirkin, the director of public policy and government relations for the Washington-based American Association of University Women. Schools may also start single-sex programs for “remedial” purposes if, for example, the girls in a school are floundering in math, provided a district offers “comparable” schools for each sex.
“We’re very alarmed about the intentions here,” Ms. Zirkin said. She believes history has shown that if boys and girls are taught separately, girls’ programs often suffer.
But Mr. Reynolds said today’s climate is different. “This is not a case where you have some group who is out there determined to harm girls and women,” Mr. Reynolds said during a press conference. “The consensus out there is that there are people of goodwill who want to try some new things.”
He pledged vigilance and close monitoring by the department’s office for civil rights, which he runs.
The Education Department’s existing interpretation of the law, in conjunction with case law, appears to have had a dampening effect on the spread of single-sex public schools. Those schools that exist have faced lawsuits from groups such as the ACLU, or sanctions from the Education Department.
Some have found loopholes or taken complex paths to stay within the law.
That’s what Tom Carroll, the founder and chairman of the Brighter Choice Charter School for Girls and the Brighter Choice Charter School for Boys, has done. His single-sex Albany schools are slated to open in September. Though boys and girls will attend school in the same building with the same faculty, they’ll be segregated. But to comply with the government’s existing interpretation of Title IX, Mr. Carroll had to create separate legal entities and separate bank accounts—one for the boys’ school and one for the girls’ school.
“That is absolutely inane,” Mr. Carroll said. “This is how absurd Title IX has become.”
Education Department officials say they want to make it easier for people like Mr. Carroll to set up single-gender schools because some research, at least, has suggested they get results.
Mr. Wright of Thurgood Marshall Elementary certainly believes that. The Seattle principal said he split up boys and girls in his low-performing school because of discipline problems and because boys, in particular, were struggling academically.
Since boys and girls began going to separate classes, discipline referrals to his office have dropped from 30 a day to one or two, Mr. Wright said. Though only 10 percent of boys met state standards a year earlier, he said, with single-gender classes that number jumped to 73 percent this year.
“They said this was against the law, there was no research on it,” Mr. Wright said, “but I’m fixing a problem.”
Much of the research that has been done on single-gender education has been conducted in private and Roman Catholic schools, said Amanda Datnow, an assistant professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto. In 2001, Ms. Datnow did one of the few studies on single- gender schools in public schools. She looked at schools in California. (“Study Cites Flaws in Single-Sex Public Schools,” May 30, 2001.)
Ms. Datnow said research shows advantages for poor and minority boys, and for girls. But she said drawing conclusions can be a murky business. Some students may benefit not because of the single-gender situation, but because of unrelated advantages, such as smaller class sizes, better resources, and more experienced teachers.
Ms. Datnow’s study found both pluses and minuses for boys and girls in single- gender education. She said she believes the Bush administration should tread carefully in encouraging its expansion.
“Experimentation would be good, because we certainly need to know more about what happens [with singe-sex education],” she said. “But we need to be careful about the guidelines, so that we make sure equity is addressed.”
A version of this article appeared in the May 15, 2002 edition of Education Week as Department Aims to Promote Single-Sex Schools