Corrected: We misspelled the name of the executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. His correct name is Leonard Sax.
Public schools once blocked from teaching boys and girls separately would find it easier to embrace single-sex classes and schools under new federal regulations issued last week.
The long-awaited regulations from the U.S. Department of Education would relax a previously strict interpretation of the main federal law guaranteeing sex equity in education. The proposed rules were met with consternation by some civil rights groups and elation by many educators, some of whom had already adopted single-sex educational practices in their schools.
“The interest is in bringing a greater diversity to the array of educational options provided for parents,” Brian W. Jones, the Education Department’s general counsel, said in announcing the new rules on March 2. Single sex education may also help schools meet particular educational needs of students, he said.
The proposed regulations, which still await a 45-day comment period, would amend Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in education programs that receive federal funds.
Under the new rules, elementary and secondary schools could offer voluntary single-sex classes within a coeducational school as long as both sexes were treated fairly and equally, Mr. Jones said.
Schools will not have to offer single- sex options for both boys and girls. For example, a district opening an all- girls school would not have to open an all-boys school. But there would have to be an equal educational opportunity for boys at a coed school within the district.
“Their burden is to try to determine how a substantially equal benefit is going to be provided for boys,” Mr. Jones said of public school districts. “Evenhandedness is the principle.”
The proposal is a significant break from past interpretations of the law by the department and the courts that have held that, except in classes such as physical and sex education, girls and boys must be educated together.
Education Department officials vowed to scrutinize single-sex classes and schools to make sure no one’s civil rights were violated.
“We have heard from many people who are concerned that we continue to vigorously enforce” Title IX, said Kenneth Marcus, who is overseeing the office for civil rights. “We have heard them, and we agree.”
Mr. Marcus said the OCR would be watching programs closely, checking admissions criteria, educational benefits, and the quality of staff, facilities, and resources available to both male and female students. Ensuring that boys and girls are treated equally will be a “continuing and vital concern,” he said.
Prompted by Law
But some groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say such assurances don’t placate them.
“Without a doubt, discrimination by gender continues,” said LaShawn Y. Warren, the legislative counsel for the ACLU’s Washington office. Ms. Warren worries that one gender may get fewer opportunities, substandard equipment or less qualified teachers, as has sometimes been the case with single-sex experiments.
Leslie T. Annexstein, the director of the legal-advocacy fund at the Washington-based American Association of University Women, said she’s troubled that department officials admit that research into single-gender education is “incomplete” but want to press forward with single- sex approaches. Studies of single-gender education have not conclusively determined whether it is beneficial, she said. “The scientific evidence isn’t there yet,” she said. “It seems they’re ahead of themselves.”
The move toward allowing public schools the flexibility to start single-sex programs stems from the No Child Left Behind Act. A provision in the 2-year-old law called for the U.S. secretary of education to issue new guidelines on single- sex programs.
The goal, according to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Texas Republican who wrote the amendment, was to give public school students “the same options as their private school contemporaries,” she said in a statement last week.
In the past year since Education Department officials announced their intention to relax restrictions, and even before then, some principals and school districts had experimented with single-sex education on their own with success.
Leonard Sacks, the executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education, based in Poolesville, Md., said about 30 public schools offered some form of single-sex education two years ago. Today, the number is 88.
“No one here is trying to repeal Title IX,” Mr. Sacks said. “We do not want to go back to the bad old days when girls had to take home ec, and boys had to take woodworking.”