WASHINGTON — While Catholic and private schools have always had the option for single-sex education, public schools have not. A new law is changing that — giving Catholic parents more options when it comes to schooling for their children.

For the first time in 30 years, the U.S. Department of Education has made a broad change to education policy, relaxing Title IX regulations to make it easier for public school districts to offer single-sex classes or schools.

“Research shows that some students may learn better in single-sex education environments,” said Margaret Spellings, U.S. Secretary of Education, in a press release announcing the change. “The Department of Education is committed to giving communities more choices in how they go about offering varied learning environments.”

Katherine McLane, press secretary for the Education Department, called the policy change “groundbreaking.”

“A change like this hasn’t been seen in the history of Title IX,” said McLane. “This adds another tool for school districts to offer children a high-quality education.”

Proponents of single-sex instruction say the new regulations will offer communities greater flexibility and lead to better academic achievement.

“We believe that boys and girls do learn differently,” said Margaret Richardson, director of the education department with the National Consultants for Education. The Catholic consulting group supports the integral formation system of education, which seeks to form students academically, apostolically, humanly and spiritually. That methodology was developed by the Legionaries of Christ.

“Gender separation helps us meet the needs and learning style of each student we have in the classroom,” Richardson said.

She cited research that demonstrates that boys and girls hear differently, see differently, and prefer different temperatures, volumes of instruction and activities.

The National Consultants for Education has 12 member schools, operated by the Legionaries of Christ, which segregate students by gender in all of the academic areas. While most of National Consultants for Education schools do not begin segregating until third or fourth grade, one of the schools — Canyon Heights in San Jose, Calif. — does so as early as kindergarten.

The new federal rules allow single-gender education any time schools think it will improve student achievement, expand the diversity of courses or meet children’s individual needs. Enrollment is entirely voluntary, and children excluded from the class must get a substantially equal coed class in the same subject or be offered a separate single-sex class. The new regulations take effect Nov. 24.

Districts may also offer an entire single-gender school without offering the same for the opposite gender, as long as there is a coed school that provides substantially the same education.

Prior to the new law, single-gender classes were allowed only for courses such as choir, gym or sex education.

Separate But Equal?

Not everyone is pleased with the change. Opponents compare the ruling to the “separate but equal” concept that has been discredited by the civil rights movement and say there hasn’t been enough research to demonstrate that single-sex education is any better than coeducational instruction.

Feminist organizations, in particular, have criticized the regulation.

“The regulations will disadvantage all students by allowing vastly expanded sex-segregation in our nation’s schools without proper safeguards against discrimination and stereotyping,” said Marcia Greenburger, president of the National Women’s Law Center in a press statement.

“The regulations allow schools to separate girls and boys for virtually any reason they can dream up,” said Emily Martin, deputy director with the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project. “Although the administration’s regulations claim to make these programs optional, sex segregation can never truly be voluntary.”

David Sadker, professor of education at American University and author of Failing at Fairness, argues that the government’s new regulations went ahead without adequate research.

“This administration is supposed to be based on scientifically based research,” said Sadker. “When we had (sex-segregated education) 30 years ago, girls lost out and boys lost out. Imagine if we did this with race. We’re saying you can separate for no educational purpose.”

Leonard Sax, director of the National Association for Single-Sex Public Education and author of Why Gender Matters, disagrees. He said that the major benefit to single-gender education is that it gives schools the power to break down gender stereotypes.

“For example, there are hard-wired differences between how boys and girls hear,” said Sax. “There are no educationally relevant differences among the races.”

He was critical of President Bush for taking so long to make the change, however. “President Bush has prevented hundreds of programs from moving forward,” Sax told the Register. “He is the real enemy of single-sex education.”

Growth Awaited

The idea actually came from female senators in both parties. In 2001, Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., drafted an amendment to the No Child Left Behind Act supporting the expansion of single-sex education.

McLane said that the move by the Department of Education began three years ago and took time for the department to investigate the research and solicit comments from educators, parents and communities.

According to a systematic review of 2,221 studies of single-gender classes and schools, released by the Department of Education in 2005, the department found a preponderance of studies that yielded results lending support to same-sex schooling. Many of the existing studies have examined single-gender education at Catholic institutions, primarily because they were the prevalent schools offering such education over the past three decades.

Such instruction is consistent with Church teaching that the sexual differences between men and women are an essential component of human identity, are constructive and complementary.

Single-sex instruction such as what is now allowed by the federal government has been available in Catholic schools for decades. According to data from the National Catholic Education Association, 33% of all Catholic secondary schools, and .8% of all Catholic elementary schools are single-gender. A total of 441 Catholic schools across the country offer such instruction.

“This is a topic that people have a strong opinion about,” said the Department of Education’s McLane. “The department wanted to make sure that they got it right, and felt the American people should have their say. That’s why it took a little time.”

The Department of Education received more than 5,800 comments from the public about the change.

With the new law, Sax expects that single-sex instruction will see phenomenal growth. At present, there are fewer than 240 public schools across the country that offer single-sex instruction.

“A lot of districts have been laying in wait for these new regulations to come out,” Tom Carroll, president of the Foundation for Education Reform, told the New York Sun. “Now that they’re out, I think there’s going to be an explosion.”

Tim Drake is based in

St. Joseph, Minnesota.