The Education Department has announced its intention to propose changes to the Title IX statutes that ban sex discrimination in federally funded education programs and activities as part of a plan to broaden public school choice.
The department said it would pursue the changes to support efforts by school districts to improve education and to provide parents with more educational options for their children.
"Our goal is to provide schools with as much flexibility as possible to offer students programs that meet their needs," Education Secretary Rodney Paige said in a statement.
A provision of President Bush's "No Child Left Behind" education plan authorizes local education agencies to use certain federal funds to establish same-gender schools and classrooms.
Only 10 single-sex public schools exist now, with two more expected to open this fall, according to Dr. Leonard Sax, a psychologist and physician who heads the National Association for the Advancement of Single Sex Public Education.
The Young Women's Leadership School, a public school for girls in the Harlem neighborhood of New York, enrolls 370 students. Among its mix of black, Asian and Hispanic students from low- and upper-income families, virtually all go on to college.
The school has operated for six years and currently has a waiting list of 1,200 for three ninth-grade slots, said guidance counselor Chris Farmer.
Since 1972, Title IX has forbidden public school districts from discriminating against any student on the basis of sex.
A few school districts have gotten around that by creating separate and essentially equal schools for both boys and girls. Others, such as The Young Women's Leadership School, have operated with the blessings of local officials, who essentially challenged the federal government to close them down in the face of improved performance.
Congress' education bill, approved last year and signed by Mr. Bush in January, clarified federal law on single-sex schooling, saying school districts could receive federal funding for single-sex schools and classes if comparable coursework and facilities are available to both girls and boys.
What constitutes "comparable" is crucial — does it mean identical calculus classes for boys and girls, or simply the same amount of money spent on both boys' and girls' programs citywide?
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who authored the measure on single-sex education, said Paige wants to broaden the meaning of "comparable."
"He believes in trying to meet every child's needs in the public arena, so that it's not just the private sector that can afford this kind of option," she said.
New provisions approved by Congress would let school districts compete for a small portion of $450 million for "innovative" programs — a far cry from the days when school districts feared such programs would actually strip them of federal funding.
Several studies have noted the benefits of single-sex schools and classes, especially for teen-agers, but school districts have been slow to make them available.
Single-sex education advocates welcomed the move, but opponents, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the American Association of University Women, said schools should focus less on "an easy fix."
"Work to improve public education — don't look at the gimmicks that really divert our attention away from leaving no child behind," said Nancy Zirkin, AAUW's director of public policy and government relations. She said schools should work more on discipline, core academics, better funding and professional development for teachers.