Public, Single-Sex Schools

PASSING love notes in class won't help boys get a passing grade. And girls who fret about what schoolboys may think of their makeup will likely need to take a makeup class at summer school.

Such truisms about mixed-sex classrooms often are seen as just the necessary early-life skirmishes in the battle of the sexes. You can't live with coed classes, you can't live without them. They teach worthwhile social skills and respect for sexual equality, even if all the adolescent angst of putting girls and boys in confined spaces for hours distracts them from learning.

The alternative is single-sex schools. But even they have an up-the-down-staircase quality to them. They can free a boy or girl from many gender distractions, such as clashing ideas about competition and collaboration, and allow them to blossom more easily into adulthood. But they can also reinforce inequality in young minds. And teachers often end up just reinforcing gender stereotypes anyway.

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For parents who can afford it, a private single-sex school for a child who needs one often fits the bill. But under federal law, Public schools generally aren't allowed to discriminate by sex, out of concern that educational resources and quality can't really be equalized in separate schools.

A new federal education law, however, has permitted the Education Department to come up with guidelines allowing single-sex schools in certain circumstances. (See story, page 1.)

In this era of bringing more choice into public schools, the new rules may help resolve the long debate over coed vs. single-sex schools. The research data are not conclusive yet, despite the yearning of many parents, especially of girls, to spare their children from coed coercion.

The process of sorting out the wisdom of public single-sex education is likely to include a Supreme Court decision on whether this new federal leniency toward sex discrimination – for the sake of the children – can be justified on constitutional principles.

The debate is similar to that over school vouchers: How much segregation can community-based public schools allow and still maintain community ideals?

The motive of those seeking single-sex schools is that every child must be treated as an individual, needing a unique learning environment. That can be as costly, however, as it may be necessary. And it means walking a legal tightrope, balancing children's needs against society's interest in equality in public education.

Congress and the Bush administration must monitor this experiment carefully, and be prepared for the likely court challenge.

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