In a deal that suspends six years of battles over single-sex education–at least temporarily–advocates for school reform and advocates for girls have agreed to support a Senate bill that would allow public school districts to experiment with federally funded single-sex education.

But federally funded single-sex public schools may never become a reality because of stringent federal requirements for equal facilities, programs and access for women and girls in public education.

The compromise language, approved unanimously by the Senate on Wednesday, is a vast improvement over earlier proposals that would have allowed schools to segregate students by sex and provide only “comparable” programs, according to women’s advocates. If “comparability”–not equality–became law, girls would have been the ones to suffer, they said.

The accord was part of an amendment to the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill that now goes to a joint House and Senate conference committee.

If the Senate bill does become law, public schools would be able to use federal money to create single-sex experimental schools or programs only when they also create equal facilities or programs. It is a standard set so high by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has yet to find equality in single-gender education.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the author of the amendment, has been arguing for years that comparable single-sex education should be the standard. In a Senate speech last fall, she said her proposal would “give more options to public schools to…provide each child the nurturing and special attention they need to succeed.”

She says single-sex private and parochial schools are academically more ambitious and successful than their coeducational counterparts.

Many women’s advocates argue that resources are rarely allocated equally between sex-segregated schools and that all-girls’ schools and programs can reinforce stereotypes that create barriers to women’s advancement.

“By definition, educational opportunities that are limited to one sex deprive each and every member of the excluded gender–and historically it is girls and women who have been excluded–from the benefits of those opportunities, regardless of whether some individual students might stand to gain from them,” according to the National Women’s Law Center in an analysis of the 1996 Supreme Court decision which struck down the “comparable” girls’ school set up by the all-male Virginia Military Academy.

Despite those concerns, Congress has been looking for ways to encourage public schools to set up single-sex programs in the name of school reform.

Former Sen. John Danforth went so far as to propose that experimental single-sex schools be exempt from Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972–the law that prohibits sex discrimination in education. Hutchison took up the cause in 1997 when she offered her “comparable” single-sx education amendment to an education savings account bill. The amendment passed the Senate 66-33, with all but two of nine women senators in support. President Clinton vetoed it.

Without the express approval of Congress, public schools fear to dabble in single-sex education, Hutchison said, and she kept pressing her case.

“The bottom line is people really think we should be experimenting with same-gender schools. They think that it’s a quick fix for education,” said Leslie Annexstein, senior counsel for the National Women’s Law Center.

“In fairness to [the female senators who supported the 1997 proposal that called for comparable single-gender education], they weren’t educated on the topic,” Annexstein said. “They didn’t realize that using the word ‘comparable’ would change the legal standard and turn the clock back to the time when boys had better schools than girls.”

The Hutchison amendment says federal funds may be used for “education reform projects that provide same-gender schools and classrooms consistent with applicable law.” That means districts would have to comply with Constitutional standards of equality and with current regulations governing Title IX of the Educational Amendments to the 1972 U.S. Civil Right Act. Title IX only permits single-sex schools or classes in rare instances: as a remedy to earlier discrimination, in human sexuality classes and in some athletic and choir programs.

“This is an approach we would have entertained two years ago,” said Nancy Zirkin, director of public policy and government relations for the American Association of University Women. “All along we felt that whatever had to be done had to be consistent with current law.”

She said her organization would be “very consistent in fighting for single-sex education that does not harm girls or harm coeducation.” Zirkin added, however: “The fact is, when we have had single-sex education, it has usually not meant equal. We have an inherent distrust of separate and equal.”

The fight is not necessarily over because appropriations bills are good for one year, and the issue could resurface next year.

Freelance writer Cindy Richards has been a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, and a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times. She has written about health care, children’s issues, education and women’s issues. She was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for her coverage of workplace issues.