Wednesday, March 3, 2004

The administration yesterday announced a major change in federal sex-discrimination rules that would give communities more freedom to offer same-sex schools and classes.

In the first major change in the 30-year-old federal Title IX regulations banning sex discrimination, Education Secretary Rod Paige said states and schools would have “maximum flexibility to … provide the best education possible for their students.”

Instead of narrow exemptions allowing same-sex classes for physical education, sex education and choir, the new rules would “provide educators and parents with a wider range of diverse education options in public as well as private schools that receive federal aid.”

Generally, same-sex schools and classes would be allowed in any situation “if they are part of an even-handed effort to provide a range of diverse educational options for male and female students, or if they are designed to meet particular, identified educational needs of students,” said a department statement about the proposed changes.

The new Title IX regulations would take effect after a 45-day public comment period, officials said.

Congress directed the department to look at ways to expand options for same-sex classes when it passed the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The bipartisan provision was offered by Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, Texas Republican, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat.

“Single-sex educational programs have been available in private schools for years,” Mrs. Hutchison said. “It’s time our nation’s public school children have the same options as their private-school contemporaries.”

The Supreme Court has consistently upheld the right of schools to have single-sex programs under the equal-protection clause of the Constitution, so long as separate programs for males and females are substantially equal.

In two recent challenges to single-sex schools — the Mississippi University for Women in 1982 and Virginia Military Institute (VMI) in 1996 — the court said single-sex programs were appropriate if the school demonstrates “that the classification serves an important governmental objective and that the sex-based classification is substantially related to the achievement of that objective,” the department said in a notice of the rule changes to be published in the Federal Register.

However, the court ruled in the Virginia case that the state had failed in its attempt to provide a comparable program for women.

The department’s notice of the rule changes said it is no longer reasonable to presume that discriminatory practices would result from the ability to provide single-sex classes “beyond the most limited of circumstances.”

“Over the past 30 years, the situation has changed dramatically. While there are still more gains to be made, schools are now far more equitable in their treatment of female students” as a result of Title IX.

“In the meantime, educational research has suggested that in certain circumstances, single-sex education provides educational benefits for some students,” the notice said.

Under the changes, “a single-sex class for each sex, in the same subject, generally is not required,” the department said.

A school survey of parents and students of both sexes could justify a single-sex class.

“If the results of the survey show a strong preference for a single-sex class in chemistry for girls, while for boys there is no expressed interest in any single-sex classes, the school in this example would not violate these proposed provisions by creating a single-sex chemistry class for girls without creating a single-sex class for boys,” the notice said. “However, the school would be required to provide a substantially equal coeducational chemistry class.”

In assessing whether schools are offering “substantially equal” single-sex classes, the department will look at factors including admissions policies and criteria; educational benefits; and quality, accessibility and availability of facilities and resources for the class, the notice said.

However, under the new regulations, a school district is not required to create a single-sex school for girls if it does so for boys, and vice versa.

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