ON WEDNESDAY, the Bush Education Department signaled its willingness to examine the rigid limitations that Title IX, the federal non-discrimination policy concerning sex in education, has placed on school districts wanting to establish single-sex schools and classes. Education secretary Rod Paige said the department's goal is to "provide schools with as much flexibility as possible to offer students programs that meet their needs."

Passed thirty years ago, Title IX's language is straightforward: "No person in the United States, on the basis of sex, can be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

At a press conference announcing the proposed policy change, Assistant Education secretary for civil rights Gerald Reynolds, who is charged with enforcing Title IX, praised the law for its impact on opportunities for girls and women: "Because of Title IX and changes in societal attitudes, we've made a lot of progress," he said. But the current understanding of the law, he added, hinders "people of good will who want to try new things."

Take, for example, a hypothetical proposal for a girls-only math and science high school. Currently, the department's guidelines for Title IX state that schools can exclude members of a sex only if the same single-sex opportunity is offered elsewhere for the other sex. A district that sees the need for an all-girls math and science school risks a Title IX lawsuit. Such a suit by the ACLU over an all-girls leadership school in Harlem has raged since the school opened seven years ago.

But what if girls, but not boys, benefit from learning in a single-sex environment? What if coeducational classes do not provide equal opportunity for learning?

Paige and Reynolds are seeking comments from public educators, civil rights groups, and parents to try to address these questions. The department is taking responses from the public for 60 days, after which it will decide how to deal with Title IX restrictions on communities that want single-sex programs.

Last year, Congress advanced the idea of experimentation with single-sex education. A provision of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 allows local education authorities to put federal "innovative education funds" toward all-girls and all-boys schools and classrooms. So the Education Department is only doing what Congress told it to.

In many ways, the debate of single-sex public education is a reenactment of an old battle. In its notice of its intent to change the rules, Education's Office of Civil Rights readily admits that when Title IX was passed, institutions used policies that "reflected outdated and stereotyped notions . . . of the limited abilities of girls and women." Gerald Reynolds, the assistant secretary for civil rights, stressed yesterday that his office will be "vigilant" in ensuring the new policy interpretation denies no one the opportunity to learn because of his or her sex.

Beth Henary is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

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