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In 1981, Cambridge, Massachusetts, became the first school district in America to replace its neighborhood schools with a “controlled choice” assignment plan, which considered parental preference and racial balance. This article considers the history preceding this decision to explore how and why some Americans became enamored with choice-based assignment at the expense of the neighborhood school in the late twentieth century. It argues that Cambridge's problematic experience with open enrollment in the 1960s and 1970s created a vocal, consumer-oriented, and politically active class of parents who became accustomed to choice and, by the early 1980s, dependent on its benefits. Moreover, controlled choice proved especially attractive in this university community because Cambridge had a constituency of well-educated, middle-income parents who possessed the social capital to identify the best educational opportunities for their children, but lacked the economic capital to use real estate to gain access to their preferred schools.
In the late 1820s, African Americans’ access to primary and religious instruction expanded significantly throughout the urban Northeast, yet barriers to their higher education remained firm. Segregated in public “African” schools, blacks were also barred from most private academies. Collegiate education similarly remained out of reach. In response, an alliance of black and white abolitionists launched a campaign to build a separate “African” college in 1831. Two ministers, one black, Peter Williams from New York, the other white, Simeon Jocelyn from New Haven, led the endeavor. After much consideration, they selected New Haven, Connecticut to house the new institution, believing that in “no place in the Union” is the “situation [of blacks] more comfortable, or the prejudices of a community weaker against them.” On September 5, 1831, Williams and Jocelyn announced their intentions. Their timing could not have been worse.