At a time when California is embracing the idea of single-sex public schools, and Gov. Pete Wilson has increased funding for them, a new report says there is no evidence that girls who are separated from boys do any better academically than they would in coeducational classrooms.

The study, "Separated by Sex: A Critical Look at Single-Sex Education for Girls," was released Thursday by the American Association of University Women, which represents some 160,000 college graduates."What the research shows is that separating by sex is not the solution to gender inequity in education," said Maggie Ford, president of the AAUW Education Foundation.

The report is sure to become fodder in the national debate over whether education can be separate but equal. Advocates of single-sex schools say that by keeping the sexes apart for a while, girls and boys both benefit.

Opponents of the single-gender academies, including the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union, say coeducation is mandatory in publicly funded institutions. Such academies violate Title IX, a 1972 federal law requiring public schools to provide equal access to girls and boys in academic and athletic programs, critics say.

In Detroit, Miami and, most recently, New York's East Harlem, single-gender schools have been assailed as discriminatory and slapped with lawsuits.

But as debates are waged and lawsuits filed, the popularity of single-gender education soars. In 1991, there were an estimated 29,000 students in all-girls schools in the United States; today, there are close to 38,000, according to the report.

The AAUW has taken a moderate position on the merits of single-gender schools.

"Our position is, we would like to see gender equity in coeducational schools," said Janice Weinman, executive director of AAUW. "We support research and experimentation that can identify what variables used in single-sex education can be applied to a coed setting."

Here are some of the report's key findings on kindergarten through 12th grade all-girl academies in the United States:

- Whereas girls perceive the classrooms in many cases to be superior, and may register gains in confidence, these benefits have not translated into measured improvements in achievement in such subjects as math and science.

- Despite the lack of academic gains, there seems to be a qualitative difference in the single-sex class environment that makes many girls prefer it to a coed class environment.

- Girls see such classes as "safe havens" from boys' intimidation.

- Establishing same-sex academies within coed schools sometimes skews the sex ratio in those classes.

The findings were based on a round table discussion convened by AAUW and attended by top education researchers and professors from around the country.

"Separating adolescents by gender for secondary schooling is not an appropriate solution to the problem of gender inequity in educational outcomes, either in the short or the long run," said Valerie Lee, an education professor at the University of Michigan who participated in the roundtable discussion.

Dist. by Scripps Howard News Service