Single Sex Doesn't Mean Segregation

Few words invoke more anger than “segregation.” Segregation recalls the abhorrent practice of separating the races, particularly in our public school system. Segregation’s premise was that the races were different, specifically, that blacks were inferior and deserved fewer resources. Blacks had no choice but to attend schools that provided less opportunity to learn than the schools serving their white peers. Americans overwhelmingly recoil at the concept of segregation today and are ashamed of this dark chapter in our history.

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Is giving parents the option of choosing a single-sex classroom for their child akin to segregation? Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization of Women, thinks so. In reaction to the Bush Administration’s release of rules that make it easier for public school systems to offer parents single-sex options, Gandy said, “‘Separate but equal’ has never really been equal for girls, and that has been true of recent experiments with single-sex schools. Segregation was wrong in the past, and it’s wrong now.”

Yet most Americans recognize that offering single-sex classrooms is nothing like forced segregation: there are legitimate reasons why some parents may feel that their sons or daughters will learn better in a single-sex environment. The presence of the other sex can be distracting for students. Some parents may find their daughters more concerned with their looks than with their school work or their sons attempting to impress their female peers, not through academic achievement, but by acting up. These parents may decide that their children will do better and learn more in a single-sex classroom.

The real question is, who is in the best position to know what’s best for any individual child? The Department of Education’s decision is based on a belief that parents should be trusted to decide if a single-sex classroom is right for their child. The new regulations specify that no child can be required to attend a single-sex public school; parents must voluntarily choose this option.

Single-sex classrooms have always been an option for parents who can afford to pay private school tuition. Private schools often cater exclusively to one sex or offer “brother” and “sister” schools that intermingle the sexes for some activities, but not others. Some of the most prestigious private schools in the nation—St. Albans School and the National Cathedral School in Washington DC; Collegiate School and The Chapin School in New York City—enroll only one sex. Our nation boasts (and feminists tend to celebrate) prestigious women’s colleges, such as Mt. Holyoke, Wellesley, and Smith. If Kim Gandy truly believes that single-sex education is an unmitigated evil, why doesn’t she push for these schools to change their enrollment policies?

Parental choice—not single-sex education—is what the National Organization for Women really opposes. NOW has fought numerous measures, from single-sex public options to school vouchers and education tax credits that give parents greater ability to decide how their children are educated.

NOW is on the wrong side of history. Increasingly, policymakers and parents recognize that all parents deserve to have control over where their children go to school. Wealthy parents have always enjoyed this freedom: they can choose private school or purchase expensive homes in exclusive areas with the best public schools. Lower income parents don’t have such luxuries. For decades, the disadvantaged have had no option but to send their children to their (often failing) neighborhood public school. But increasingly states and localities are creating new options to give all parents the opportunity to choose the best learning environment for their children.

Allowing voluntary single-sex instruction in American public schools is another important step forward for greater parental choice in education. Families who believe their child would learn best in a single-sex classroom may now have that chance. The National Organization of Women’s attempt to tarnish this new option as modern segregation is simply wrong.