A right to single-sex education?

Last week the Department of Education announced new rules that clear the way for public school districts to open single-sex schools and classrooms. Since then, a flood of criticisms from women's groups and some civil rights organizations has spewed forth.

The changes, they contend, portend the re-segregation of public schools and threaten to undermine the civil rights gains for women that so many have worked so hard to secure. Nancy Zirkin, vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, told Diana Jean Schemo of the New York Times, "Segregation is totally unacceptable in the context of race.... Why in the world in the context of gender would it be acceptable." (See story here.)

Siding with Zirkin are the National PTA, the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization for Women (NOW), and a host of others fretful that we are returning to a segregated society.

But for low-income parents who mostly create the demand for single-sex public schools and for educators who operate and support them, such schools present no challenge to civil rights. In fact, they are one of the keys to delivering what the civil rights movement promised: equal opportunity for all.

That's the opinion of William Lawson, who since 2002 has run the William A. Lawson Institute for Peace and Prosperity middle school (WALIPP), a single-sex charter school in Houston. Lawson wanted a school that would cater to low-income black males, who, he argues, learn better in single-sex schools under the direction of black male teachers. "We think [our students] can learn better in an all male environment," he told the Houston Chronicle. And their soaring scores in math and reading suggest he's right. He's applied to convert his school from charter to traditional public.

Tom Carroll, chairman of the Brighter Choice Charter Schools in Albany, New York, has also seen first-hand the difference same-sex schools can make. Brighter Choice operates two schools-one for boys, one for girls-and their students have excelled in the classroom and on state exams (see here). And parents are responding. Roughly one-third of Albany's elementary students applied for the 50 single-sex slots available at his schools last year.

So impressed with Brighter Choice's success was Martin Luther King III that he spoke to the schools' leaders earlier this year. For King, Brighter Choices is an extension of the civil rights movement, not a threat to it.

Said King: "Like the American Civil Rights Movement, [Brighter Choice's] efforts to educate ... children ... is about liberation-liberation from prejudice, liberation from socially imposed limitations, and liberation of the dignity, capabilities, and potential for excellence that dwells in the heart of every human being."

Benjamin Wright, regional director of Victory Schools in Philadelphia, a private manager of public schools, would most likely agree with King.

In 2000, Wright was principal of the Thurgood Marshall Elementary School. Concerned about his students' abysmal test scores, he turned to single-sex education as a way to focus their attention and to allow teachers to target problems that plagued the majority of boys (poor English skills) and girls (poor math skills). He divided his troubled 343 students into boys' and girls' classes, and "turned the school upside down," he said. The boys in the school surged from just 10 percent meeting state reading requirements to 66 percent in two years. Girls' scores, too, climbed, though not as sharply.

Leonard Sax, executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Schools, has been in the vanguard of single-sex schools for more than a decade. Stories such as those told by Lawson, Carroll, and Wright aren't anomalies, he would argue. In fact, the evidence is mounting that single-sex schools work.

On his NASSPS website, Sax chronicles the growing number of studies that show the advantages, both academic and personal, that boys and girls reap when they attend single-gender schools. (Wealthy parents have known for years that single-sex education benefits their children, which is one reason why they dole out tens of thousands of dollars a year to send them to exclusive prep schools.) A review of research by Pamela Haag further strengthens Sax's conclusion (see here).

Still, Zirkin is unimpressed. Same-sex schools are "a gimmick," she tells CNN.com. "You don't know the impact on the other kids who are left behind."

But the children these schools are serving--mostly poor and minorities--have already been left behind. The bottom line, Sax explains, is that boys and girls learn differently. Recognizing this, and responding appropriately, only makes sense.

Single-sex schools aren't for everyone--Sax (as well as Lawson, Carroll, and Wright) will be the first to admit that. But for those who could potentially benefit, we owe it to them to give them this chance. It's a matter of basic civil rights.

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