The Young Women's Leadership School sits at the intersection of 106th Street and Park Avenue in East Harlem-and at the intersection of a school-reform debate in Washington. The school is a regular New York City public school for grades 7 to 12, except it's only for girls. The school's success with its low-income, largely Hispanic and African-American student body-all 32 graduating seniors went to college last year, many of them the first college students in family history-places anti-choice liberals in an uncomfortable position.
Last week, the Education Department announced its intention to reverse three decades of federal policy and encourage single-sex education as an option for low-income parents in struggling public schools. In addition, a little-noticed amendment in the education bill President Bush signed in January allows school districts to compete for up to $3 million in federal aid for single-sex programs. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) authored the amendment, which also had the support of Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.); both lawmakers cited the East Harlem example on the Senate floor.
Liberal groups that oppose education choice have fought the East Harlem school since the day it opened its doors. They cite Title IX of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1972, which forbids public-school districts to discriminate against any student on the basis of sex. The New York Civil Liberties Union filed a complaint in 1996 with the Education Department when the Young Women's Leadership School had just 56 seventh-graders, but the Clinton administration never acted to enforce the existing regulations.
Gerald Reynolds, assistant secretary of education for civil rights, told WORLD that the Clinton team actually considered encouraging single-sex schools, but didn't act to change the law. TeamBush, he said, wants to make it clear single-sex schools are a viable choice for parents: "This administration is not advocating what parents should do. Some won't find this [single-sex option] to be the best environment for their child, and that's fine. Others will. It's not a case of the government saying boys go here, girls go there. We should provide these parents with options."
Clearly, some parents want that option. Maureen Grogan, executive director of the Young Women's Leadership Foundation, says her school's biggest challenge is that it isn't big enough: "We have 1,200 applications for our ninth-grade class, to fill just five slots. We have over 300 applications for seventh grade, and only six openings."
Like the East Harlem school, a handful of other school districts have gotten around the Title IX law by creating separate schools for both boys and girls-but the legality of such a maneuver is dubious. East Harlem's Young Women's Leadership School operates with the blessing of local officials, who essentially challenged the federal government to shut down the school in the face of improved performance.
That evidently won't happen now in East Harlem. Education Secretary Rod Paige and Sens. Hutchison and Clinton are scheduled to visit the school at the end of this month, as the school year draws to a close. The debate is just starting, though, because of the two-month public-comment period required for a regulatory change of this nature. The new regulations officially are slated to take effect around the beginning of the new school year.