Are Single-Sex Classrooms Legal?
Two years ago, after reading a book called Why Gender Matters, Jo Lynne DeMary, who was then superintendent of Virginia public schools, became convinced that separating boys and girls into single-sex classrooms and schools could help both genders learn better. So she started developing a plan to help Virginia schools split up the groups, even recruiting an expert who could do training and making an instructional video. Then, in a phone call, Leonard Saxthe book's authortold her that her plan might violate federal rules.
At the time, rule books suggested that Title IX, the 1972 law against sex discrimination in education, effectively prohibited single-sex classrooms except in a few special cases. Upon learning this, DeMary canceled the whole project. "Right there, just in the state of Virginia, we could have had hundreds of schools doing this," says Sax, an advocate of single-sex classrooms.
But on October 24, the Department of Education announced new Title IX regulations based on the guidelines of a No Child Left Behind amendment. Old regulations allowed for same-gender classes only in rare cases like physical education and human sexuality classes. But lawmakers in 2001 wanted to make those rules more flexible, and so the new ones expand that option to any class or school that can prove gender separation leads to improved student achievement. The change could lead to a wave of single-sex classrooms and even schools in public systems across the country. But it will also likely lead to legal challenges.
While advocates such as Sax see the new regulations as a welcome and long-overdue change, opponents like Marcia Greenberger, copresident of the National Women's Law Center, call it "an invitation to discriminate." The new regulations, they say, actually violate the original Title IX law. Therefore, schools that separate boys and girls will do so "at their peril," says Jocelyn Samuels, NWLC's vice president for education and employment. Potential legal battles will focus on how Title IX should be interpreted, but at the heart of the debate is one question: How would we rather our children learn, apart or together?
In the past 10 years, more public schools have been answering "apart." One of the first of the new groups to promote gender separation was the Young Women's Leadership School, founded in 1996 by Ann Rubenstein Tisch, then a journalist at NBC. "Single-sex schools existed for affluent girls and parochial girls and Yeshiva girls," Tisch says, "but not for inner-city girls." So in 1996, with the blessing of then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and a team of lawyers who assured her a single-sex school would not violate Title IX, she went to East Harlem and opened a public school for girls. The results, Tisch says, have been stunning: In its six graduating classes, the Harlem school has produced a 100 percent graduation rate, a 100 percent rate of enrollment in four-year colleges, and an 82 percent retention rate once the girls enter college.
Even in 2001, the Harlem program had already impressed Hilary Rodham Clinton, who talked about the school on the floor of the Senate. "We could use more schools such as this," Clinton declared, joining Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison in proposing an amendment to the No Child Left Behind education reform act that would make this possible. That amendment is responsible for last week's changes.