Girls-Only Is OK

Single-sex schools are a form of diversity

The ACLU is at it again. The organization that opposes school uniforms, obstructs teen curfews, fights metal detectors at airports, and challenges restrictions on child pornography is now turning its legal firepower against single-sex public schools.

Last fall, the Young Women's Leadership School opened in East Harlem, NY. It has 165 students in the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. School officials plan to expand it to the 12th grade by adding a grade each year. The school is intended to emphasize math and science and allow young girls to attend school in an environment free of sexual pressures. It is one of three all-girl public schools in the country.

As soon as the proposal for the East Harlem school was announced, Norman Siegel, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, wrote to the chancellor demanding that the school not open. He was joined by the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and the New York Civil Rights Coalition. Now the federal government is getting involved. Investigators from the US Department of Education's office of civil rights will soon be meeting with New York City Board of Education officials to discuss gender discrimination at the school. The opposition of civil rights groups to single-sex education is unfortunate. There is a strong case for single-sex schools.

Numerous studies indicate that a single-sex environment is conducive to higher levels of learning and achievement. One study found that women attending a women's college were more likely to earn degrees than their peers at coeducatonal institutions. A report by the American Association of University Women argued that "boys are rewarded for aggressive behavior and girls become spectators at learning." For many female adolescents at coeducational schools, self-esteem plummets, as does interest in science and math. And then there's the prevalence of sexual harassment, especially in junior high.

The ACLU's answer to gender bias in the classroom is to remake society.

"Rather than excluding boys from the classrooms, the school board should train and monitor teachers to assure that all girls and boys are treated equally. The focus should be on substantially improving the integrated model and not on institutionalizing a segregated model," says Siegel, of the New York ACLU.

This shows a woeful ignorance of classroom dynamics. I've seen the matter up close. A few years ago, I taught at Smith College, a women's college. My first semester, I taught "Introduction to International Relations," with 53 students: 51 females, and two males from Hampshire College and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Amazingly, during the first few days of class, discussion was dominated by the two males. The females fell virtually silent in the face of verbal aggression by the minority outsiders. I was forced to pull the men aside, remind them they were guests, clue them in on the purposes of single-sex education, and ask them to cool it.

While the nation's 83 women's colleges fiercely maintain their right to exclude men, they don't support the right of men's colleges to exclude women. In the case of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), the Women's College Coalition (WCC) sponsored an amicus brief in support of the government's challenge to VMI's single-sex status. The WCC's contention was that the mission of some single-sex schools was to end, rather than continue, traditional gender classifications.

In other words, the women's colleges argued that they should be able to remain single-sex because they are politically correct, while politically-incorrect VMI should be forced to go coed. What hypocrisy.

In my view laws banning sex discrimination shouldn't be used to deny educational diversity. Equal protection under the law does not mean that every school has to be exactly the same. If Smith wants to admit only women and VMI only men, it should be permitted.

And if Detroit, Milwaukee, and Minneapolis want to create special public academies for young black males, they should be allowed to as well.

There is some movement in this direction. In 1994, Sen. John Danforth (R) of Missouri proposed that federal grants be awarded for the creation of 10 experimental single-sex programs for "low-income educationally disadvantaged students." The amendment passed the Senate but was defeated in the House after heavy lobbying by NOW. In California, Gov. Pete Wilson signed legislation that makes $5 million available for 10 pilot single-sex schools.

The civil rights community should value educational diversity, and recognize that voluntary single-sex public education is a basic civil right.

* Ted Rueter has a PhD in political science from the University of Wisconsin - Madison. In 1989-90 he taught at Smith College, a single-sex school in Massachusetts.

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