updated 3/3/2004 4:54:17 PM ET 2004-03-03T21:54:17

Public schools are about to get broad new freedom to teach boys and girls separately, perhaps the biggest shakeup to coed 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.

Only about 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.”

Impact on discrimination?
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 coeducation 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 Wednesday 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 be “evenhanded,” meaning they must 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.

Single-sex schools
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 text books 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.

Period for public comment
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 sweeping education law that called single-sex classes an innovative option and ordered that schools get fresh guidance.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and other female senators in both parties led that charge. “It’s time our nation’s public school children have the same options as their private school contemporaries,” she said Wednesday.

President Bush proposed $297 million for “innovative programs,” including single-sex classes, in the budget year starting Oct. 1.

Much of the growth in single-sex classes and schools has occurred in the last few years, said Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association For Single Sex Public Education.

In Greensboro, N.C., up to 100 high-school girls who struggled with their academic and social skills recently got their own public school on the Bennett College campus. They feel more free to discuss their problems and are less distracted by boys, history teacher Shawn Watlington said.

“Male students in high school have different needs — more organizational problems — while females have problems with confidence,” she said. “As a teacher, I would have to split myself and deal with both issues, so I had less time to go more in depth.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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