WASHINGTON (AP) — Public schools are about to get broad
new freedom to teach boys and girls separately, perhaps the biggest
shakeup to co-ed classrooms in three decades.

The Education Department plans to change its enforcement of
Title IX, the landmark anti-discrimination law, to make it easier
for districts to create single-sex classes and schools. The move
would give local school leaders discretion to expand choices for
parents, whether that means a math class, a grade level or an
entire school designed for one gender.

U.S. research on single-sex schooling is limited, but advocates
say it shows better student achievement and attendance and fewer
discipline problems. Critics say there is no clear evidence, and
that single-sex learning doesn’t get students ready for an
integrated world.

At least 91 of 91,000 public schools offer a form of same-sex
education now, including The Philadelphia High School for Girls,
which sends almost all of its graduates to college.

“The environment itself, I think it empowers girls,”
said Principal Geraldine Myles. “There is no ceiling to stop
them from being anything they want to be, in terms of gender. It
just isn’t there, and at their impressionable age, it
probably makes a difference.”

While opponents predict the new federal plan will be a big blow
to equal education opportunity, department officials say there will
be no easing of protection against sexual discrimination.

“We are not advocating single-sex schools, and we are not
advocating single-sex classrooms,” said Ken Marcus, who
oversees civil rights for the department. “We understand that
co-education remains the norm in American public education, and
will continue to be the norm. We are simply trying to ensure that
educators have flexibility to provide options.”

Since current rules began in 1975, single-sex classes have been
allowed only in limited cases, such as gym classes involving
contact sports. The proposed regulations announced yesterday will
loosen those restrictions considerably, allowing districts to
create single-sex classes to provide a diversity of choices, or to
meet the particular needs of students.

Schools would have to treat boys and girls equally in
determining what courses to offer. And single-gender enrollment
must be voluntary.

If a school creates a single-sex class in a subject, it would
not be required to offer the other gender its own similar class,
but it would have to offer a coed version of it.

The department’s plan would also make it easier to create
entire single-sex schools.

Current rules allow those schools, but only when a district
creates a comparable single-sex school for the other gender. That
restriction would disappear. Instead, districts would have the
option of demonstrating that their coed schools provide
“substantially equal” benefits to the excluded sex.

Some call that bad policy.

“The notion that you can have schools that are
‘separate but less than equal’ is a new low in the
understanding and protection of anti-discrimination
principles,” said Jocelyn Samuels, vice president of
education and employment at the National Women’s Law
Center.

But school districts, Marcus said, must truly show that excluded
students get an education that’s substantially the same as
those in same-sex classes. The department, in responding to
complaints or doing its own reviews, will consider everything from
textbooks to admissions criteria to ensure districts don’t
play favorites with one gender.

The changes, which would not be immediate, affect elementary and
secondary education, but not colleges. Single-sex vocational
classes and schools at the K-12 level would remain prohibited,
however.

The proposed regulations will be open for public comment for 45
days, and officials expect a final ruling within a few months.

The impetus for change came in 2001, when Congress passed a law
that called single-sex classes an innovative option and ordered
that schools get fresh guidance.

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