Boston — With all the talk of "flexibility" you would think the Bush administration was trying to get yoga into the national curriculum instead of single-sex schools.
"Our goal is to provide schools with as much flexibility as possible," said Education Secretary Rod Paige. His announcement encouraging the creation of all-girl and all-boy public schools "flexed" this verbal muscle again and again.
Well, I suppose you have to give them credit for attempting such a pose. What they really want is to revise federal regulations to allow funding for, well, resegregation.
I'm not surprised that this news came the same week we found out how badly kids are doing on the national history exam. That's nothing compared to our leaders. They seem to have forgotten that sex segregation was once the baldest of sex discrimination. They've even forgotten the 1950s, when we were educated along separate tracks for separate lives in home ec or shop.
Now the old thing is being touted as the new thing. The restoration is being offered as the reform. Backsliding is being described as "innovation." That's a twist that would challenge a master yogi.
How did we get here? A generation ago, in court and Congress, we agreed that separate was not equal in public schools, whether we were talking about race or gender. The road to equality was walked together.
Now an odd coalition of feminists and conservatives has become "flexible" on civil rights. It includes politicians from Sen. Hillary Clinton, who went to all-girls Wellesley College, to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, who went to the coed University of Texas.
Some supporters of single-sex schools think times have changed so much that women don't have to worry about discrimination. Others believe that the best way for women to break barriers is to take their own road. And still others believe that schools are so bad we shouldn't worry about equal education; we should worry about any education.
In this atmosphere, it has become common wisdom to say that girls and boys, especially adolescents, distract and derail each other from the (school) subjects at hand. It has become equally common wisdom to say that girls and boys are different biological creatures who learn at different paces in different ways and therefore do best in different schools.
Most of this wisdom is presented under the rubric: "studies show." But in fact, there is much anecdote and little research to prove that single-sex education benefits either boys or girls.
No one knows whether girls do well in schools like the Young Women's Leadership School of East Harlem because of the absence of boys or the presence of small classes and a committed community. No one knows, for that matter, whether boys are distracted by girls or "civilized" by them. Or neither.
And while some all-girls schools describe themselves as progressive hothouses of feminism, some all-boys schools remember the Virginia Military Institute? tend to act like the last bastions of the tradition.
Can you have separate but equal schools? Is it just a matter of being "flexible" on civil rights?
Title IX, now 30 years old, allows federal funding of some separate classes like phys ed and sex ed. But it's quite a different matter to encourage the public funding of schools for only one gender. Can we imagine paying for separate but equal schools to accommodate the "learning styles" or psychic "needs" of separate races? Can we imagine calling for such "flexibility" in civil rights?
We live in a coed world, we work in it. A generation of coed schools and dorms and workplaces has produced more equality between men and women, not less. We are less likely to see each other as "other," less likely to separate our work and personal lives.
Even if, as some worry, girls slip and boys behave badly during adolescence, the solution is not to send them to his and hers corners. It's to experiment with new methods of teaching, and to rewire the small society called school. This school world is, after all, a mirror image of the larger world. Out here, men and women still have one foot in a new world and one in the old. It's a tough pose.
In the climate of despair about public schools, we've been latching onto one "solution" after another. One day it's school uniforms, the next day it's school choice. Now we're saying that a solution to bad public education is single-sex public education.
There are fewer than a dozen single-sex public schools. They will remain a minority. The promise of funding and the premise of "flexibility" is another in a series of deliberate distractions.
Coeducation is not the problem. Education is. And no matter how limber the political stance, you can't keep moving forward while you're looking backward.
Ellen Goodman is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.