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What a happy surprise: Single-gender education may actually get a timid nod in the elementary and secondary school bill nearing final passage in Congress. That will be a refreshing change from Washington's usual practice of imposing increasingly tight and silly restrictions.

For the past two decades, a federal law called Title IX has been invoked to block virtually any boys' or girls' classes in public schools. This hardly mattered to most parents, who prefer coeducation anyway. But a minority would choose sex segregation for their children if it were offered. And they have serious reasons for their preference. It's just plain wrong for the law to stand in their way.Such parents belong chiefly to two camps: those who believe the pathologies of troubled boys in inner cities might be lessened by strict, all-male schooling; and those who cite abundant evidence that girls flourish in educational settings where they don't have to compete with more assertive males.

In cities like Detroit, Baltimore and Philadelphia, it makes sense to encourage all efforts to improve disadvantaged boys' chances of growing up straight. These are the youths whose neighborhoods produce mind-boggling rates of unemployment, illiteracy, illegitimacy and crime. This country cannot afford to waste even remotely promising schemes for salvaging threatened urban boys.

Yet schools designed with these children's unique vulnerability in mind were stymied. Why? Because, as Scripps Howard News Service so bluntly but accurately puts it, "Civil libertarians and feminists more concerned about abstract equality than real-life opportunity brandished the law."

Similarly, math and science classes for girls in Ventura County, Calif., and Aurora, Ill., have come under attack, despite the mountain of experience and research demonstrating the advantages many girls derive from single-gender schooling. These include better test scores, greater self-confidence and higher professional aspirations.

In short, there is nothing capricious or sinister about the notion that single-gender schooling can help both sexes. The benefits should not be confined to families able to afford private school.

The Senate voted 66-33 the other day for the cautious Danforth amendment, permitting waivers of Title IX for up to 10 voluntary five-year experiments. These must be equally available to disadvantaged boys and girls who prefer the single-gender option.

Sadly, the American Civil Liberties Union sees the Danforth amendment not as a constructive exercise of freedom but as a dangerous suspension of civil rights. What myopic folly! Let's hope the drafters of the final education bill are more clearsighted.