The Odd Couple

Single-sex education advocate Leonard Sax wonders why the Bush administration is getting all the blame (and credit) for something Kay Bailey Hutchison and Hillary Clinton teamed up to do for the nation's public schools.

The Women's Quarterly, Summer 2002

SINGLE-SEX EDUCATION has long been a no-no for feminists. So it was not surprising that, when the Department of Education announced this spring that girls' schools and boys' schools would henceforth be eligible for public money, the reaction was a barrage of protest. "The Bush administration's proposal for single-sex schools is a giant step backward in the struggle for girls' and women's equality," Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women, proclaimed in USA Today. Terry O'Neill, the organization's spokesman, chimed in: "How can a single-sex school teach boys to be led by girls?" she asked.

For Nancy Zirkin, director of public policy for the American Association of University Women, the new rules on single-sex education raised the specter of racial segregation. Zirkin invoked the language of Brown v. Board of Education when she declared, "We believe that separate is never equal." "It is ironic and discouraging that the Bush administration has chosen to use its regulatory power to encourage sex discrimination by promoting single-sex education," wrote Leslie Wolfe, president of the Center for Women Policy Studies, in a letter to the New York Times.

Hold on, ladies. You're attacking the wrong folks. The real "culprits" are two female senators--Republican stalwart Kay Bailey Hutchison and Hillary Clinton, the feminist icon. When Hutchison proposed an amendment to the 2001 education bill to permit single-sex education in public schools, Clinton courageously rose to voice support.

Hutchison first introduced the amendment in 1998, when it passed in the Senate but then met its doom in the form of a veto from Senator Clinton's husband. During the debate that year, Senator Ted Kennedy argued that the amendment raised a "sinister and real issue of constitutionality." For good measure, Kennedy added that it would "undermine the whole movement of trying to get equal treatment for women.

When Hutchison tried again, in June 2001, something amazing happened--the amendment passed the Senate by unanimous consent and subsequently was signed into law. This might not have happened but for the support of Clinton, who signed on as a co-sponsor. With Clinton on board, not a single senator spoke against the amendment. Single-sex education in public schools has been illegal (more or less) since the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Tide IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. The Hutchison amendment made public single-sex education unambiguously legal and eligible for up to $450 million a year in federal funding.

When guidelines regarding this amendment were promulgated in May, newspapers--like the feminist establishment--simply assumed that the Bush administration was behind the shift in policy: "Bush Plan Would Reverse Key Policy," shouted the Washington Post's front page headline. The New York Times' headline blared: "White House Proposes New View of Education Law to Encourage Single-Sex Schools."

The new rules fly in the face of the "findings" of a famous report by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), which now opposes single-sex education. In 1998, the organization published Separated by Sex, a report on single-sex education for girls. The press release was headlined: "Report Finds Separating by Sex Not the Solution to Gender Inequity in School." The release listed five findings, all of which were negative. It further noted that single-sex public schools are of "questionable legality."

People who went on to read the report itself, however, were in for a surprise. A Wall Street Journal editorial noted the disparity between the report and the accompanying press release. "The Association tanked its own study," the Journal concluded. The introductory essay was by Pamela Haag, director of research for the AAUW's Education Foundation, who wrote that "published studies that use subject preferences and girls' attitudes toward math and science as indicators have concluded uniformly that single-sex environments have a positive effect for girls." Cornelius Riordan, professor of sociology at Providence College and an authority on single-sex education, was emphatic: "Single-sex schools work. They work for girls and boys, women and men, whites and non-whites." "The [beneficial] effects of single-sex schools are greatest among black or Hispanic females from low socioeconomic homes," he emphasized.

Shortly after the Young Women's Leadership School, a girls-only public school in East Harlem, opened its doors in the fall of 1996, the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women, joined by the ACLU, filed a formal complaint with the Department of Education which claimed that the school violated Title IX. Like Zirkin more recently, Anne Connors, president of New York NOW, invoked the language of Brown v. Board of Education, insisting that the school should be closed: "Separate but equal is not OK," she said.

The Young Women's Leadership School has been phenomenally successful. In the most recent class, 100 percent of the girls passed the New York Regents exam in English, compared with 42 percent citywide. The school has the best attendance record in its district. All but one member of the class of 2001 went on to attend a four-year college; the one exception is a woman who enlisted in the Navy Every member of the class of 2002 has been accepted to a four-year college. These figures are even more impressive when you consider that 90 percent of the graduating seniors came from families where neither parent attended college.

THE SUCCESS of the Young Women's Leadership School appears to have been an important factor in Hillary Clinton's decision to support the single-sex education amendment. On the floor of the Senate, Clinton pronounced the East Harlem school "one of the premier public schools for girls in our nation, adding, "We could use more schools such as this."

Why should the AAUW and the feminist establishment oppose single-sex education? And why does Clinton support it? The answer to both questions has to do with school vouchers and school choice. Over the past ten years, the weight of evidence demonstrating the benefits of single-sex education has become overwhelming. Studies from the United States and from around the world have found that both girls and boys who attend single-sex schools do better in school, have a better attitude toward school, and may be less likely to get involved in drugs and alcohol. (You can review many of these studies at SingleSexSchools. org.) All those studies pose a problem for those who stubbornly oppose school vouchers. If single-sex education is so effective, why should it be available only to those kids whose parents can afford private school tuition? Shouldn't kids from poor families have the chance to benefit as well? Acknowledging the benefits of single-sex education would --in the eyes of the AAUW and like-minded organization s--inevitably fuel the school voucher movement.

Hence the strategy followed by most of the leadership of the "women's movement." Deny the benefits of single-sex education. Insist that the evidence is ambiguous--even though it isn't. That's a risky gambit in the age of the Internet, when any parent can go online and find two dozen or more scholarly reports demonstrating the unique advantages of single-sex classrooms for both girls and boys.

WHEN IT COMES tO vouchers, Clinton agrees with the AAUW and the National Organization for Women: She doesn't like them. But Clinton is smarter than NOW and the AAUW "Public school choice should be expanded as broadly as possible," Clinton insisted. "There should not be any obstacle to providing single-sex choice within the public school system." That is Hillary's key insight. If single-sex schools offer unique advantages, why not encourage the development of single-sex schools inside the public school system? Why should the advantages be only for the rich?

A physician and psychologist, Leonard Sax is executive director of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education.

©2002 Independent Women's Forum, ©2002 Gale Group




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