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US opens door to schools teaching boys, girls separately

With limits eased, districts can make the choice

WASHINGTON -- For the first time in a generation, public schools have won broad freedom to teach boys and girls separately, stirring a new debate about equality in the classroom.

The Education Department announced rules yesterday that will make it easier to create single-sex classes or schools, a plan that's been expected for almost three years.

The move occurs at a time when the value of same-sex education is in doubt. Research shows mixed results, as even the department's own review says.

Yet Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said more parents deserve to have the option. The push began not with the White House, but rather with female senators of both parties.

"Research shows that some students may learn better in single-sex education environments," Spellings said, although she did not offer an outright endorsement.

"The Department of Education is committed to giving communities more choices in how they go about offering varied learning environments," she said.

The new federal rules may change how schools will look in the future.

To be published today and take effect Nov. 24, the rules update the enforcement of Title IX, the landmark antidiscrimination law. The current language has stood since 1975. Until now, single-sex classes have been allowed in only limited cases, such as gym and sex education classes.

The new rules will allow same-sex education any time schools think it will improve students' achievement, expand the diversity of courses, or meet individual needs. Enrollment must be voluntary. Children excluded from the class must get a "substantially equal" coed class in the same subject, if not a separate single-sex class.

Districts can also offer an entire school for one gender without doing the same for the other gender, as long as there is a coed school that provides substantially the same thing.

Advocacy groups for women criticized the new rules as a weakening of civil rights.

"That is not a substitute for true equality," argued Jocelyn Samuels, vice president for education and employment at the National Women's Law Center. "It's a very dangerous sign to schools, that they can relax their vigilance in ensuring equal educational opportunities."

Stephanie Monroe, who oversees civil rights for the Education Department, promised fair enforcement. The department will look at teacher quality, textbooks, and other factors to determine whether coed classes are essentially the same quality as the single-sex classes. About 240 public schools offer same-sex education in the United States, up from three in 1995, according to the National Association for Single Sex Public Education.

"There's no question that we're going to see very dramatic growth in the next year or two," said Leonard Sax, the association's executive director.

He said separate classes can erode stereotypes -- not reinforce them -- by letting boys and girls explore their interests freely.

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, Republican of Texas, and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, led the way in 2001, pushing single-sex education options in the No Child Left Behind law.

The department released proposed regulations in March 2004. After 31 months, an unusually long review time, the agency is releasing final rules that are substantially the same.

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