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Single-Sex Education

05/21/02 12:00AM By Cheryl Hanna
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(Host) Commentator Cheryl Hanna's support for one of the elements of the President's initiative on education has surprised some of her friends.

(Hanna) I usually disagree with President Bush, but a few weeks ago, when he announced his intent to make it easier for public schools to establish single sex classrooms, well, you know what they say: politics can make strange bedfellows.

Currently, only a few public schools provide for single sex classroom education, and none are in Vermont. So if parents want to send their son or daughter to an all-girls or all-boys school, they have to pay for private education.

I have always felt strongly, indeed passionately, that for some girls, and some boys, single sex education provides a superior, and sometimes even life-saving, learning environment. Even though much of the fanfare over single sex education has focused on why many girls do better in the classroom when no boys are present, new research suggests that boys may also benefit from single sex education, especially those at risk for dropping out of school.

The public school single sex classroom is hardly the answer to all the problems children today face, but it could be a very valuable option for families who can't afford private school, especially when we target those children who are most likely to benefit from it.

So on this issue, I supported the President with all my heart. Well, my friends thought that I had lost my mind. "You're practically sleeping with the enemy," said my Oliver-Stone-everything-is-a-conspiracy friend. "Don't let him seduce you with all this it's-good-for-girls talk. The hidden agenda is to gut the American Public School system." That could be true. Many supporters of the president's education bill also support a conservative version of school choice. But Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy also supported the bill, and they're hardly conservative on public school issues.

"Cheryl you're a lawyer! You ought to know that separate can never be equal," commented my very-feminist gal pal. She stands with the National Organization for Women and the ACLU on this one. They oppose publicly funded same-sex education and instead advocate for better and more equitable co-education.

"If there were data that suggested students segregated by race score higher on tests, would you advocate that we go back to segregated public schools?" asked another friend as we started down that slippery slope of what-ifs. He's got a point, but I would never support separate-but-equal if the issue were race, and neither would the Supreme Court.

Gender is different. Research and experience tell us that girls and boys develop and learn differently, and the court has said that some single-sex public education programs are constitutional.

But I understand the reluctance to have public segregation of any sort, and that separate could become unequal, especially for girls. So, I'm willing to slow down. Single-sex public education may be a great idea whose time has come, but let's keep talking about what it will mean for our communities before making any long-term commitment to it.

Well Mr. President, here's where I'm at: I'm not in love, but I'm open to persuasion.

This is Cheryl Hanna.

Cheryl Hanna is a professor at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont.
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