When I was growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska, we had four high schools. Attendance was decided by neighborhood. You attended your high school based on which one you lived closest to — and you were not allowed to pick your high school. Your address locked you into your school no matter what.  Your parents not only made you, they then chained you to a public school just because of the house in which you happened to live.

The high schools broke down into these four, distinct, stereotypical tropes:

Blue Collar: Working class families who worked in factories. There was no money for extracurricular activities.  The kids were tough and there were many unplanned pregnancies. High school was the be-all and the end-all because few students went on to attend college.

White Collar: The business elite and their privileged kids. Artistic. Lots of money. College prep was a priority and college — out of state — was mandatory.

Drugs: New money. Lots of drug taking and drug dealing and drinking.  The kids were the offspring of the laissez-faire rich. Some college was expected but not demanded.

Urban: The inner city core. Mixed Races in a town that was 98% White. Poor kids and urban dwellers. Lots of high school dropouts. Few students were properly prepped for college learning.

Back then, if you lived in the “Blue Collar” neighborhood and wanted to attend the “White Collar” school because they had a better Arts program, you were out of luck. You were forced to attend the school in you Zip Code even though everyone in the city was paying the same property tax rate to pay for those public schools.

Was it fair that, based on your address alone, your high school lot in life was cast for you? Shouldn’t students have the choice to attend a public school that best fits their needs and style of learning? The answer to that question when I was growing up was, “No!” — because all the schools were supposedly “equal,” in educational quality even though we all knew they were not.  You could always try to petition the public school administration to grant a waiver to transfer to a school out of your district, but application success was unpredictable and rarely granted unless there was a demonstrable cause of extreme need.

That has changed now.

You can pick your high school without having to petition the city. The aftereffect of this new “public school choice” is that all the high schools raised their educational status and added to their learning experience to create a more genuine, whole cloth, experience for all the students. Some of the schools specialize more in the Arts or Industry, but the clearer focus now is on universal learning and mandatory blanket college prep.  Having the freedom to choose your school from a list of equals actually encourages you to pick the school closest to home to save you time and energy in transportation; and yet you don’t feel chained to an inferior school just because you happen to live on this street instead of that one across town.

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