In the post-Civil War period, the concept of a common-school system was advocated as a "right" and then institutionalized in the early 1900s as a mandate in many states for children from ages 6 to 17. Since that time, students and parents who have made use of the public school system have been generally assigned a specific school. The first such assignments were informal, based on the availability of schools for a particular area. Later, as American cities became more cosmopolitan and students living in rural areas had better transportation and access to schools, such assignments were based on where the school-aged children lived in relation to the schools; in many cases, two children residing on opposite sides of a street might attend different schools, depending on where the school district lines were drawn.
Indeed, much of American history is reflected in the gradual movement from wholly private schools to community schools that were similar to private schools today and then to government-mandated "public" schools that were supported by taxpayer dollars and filled by government assignment and compulsory education laws. As the United States grew more urban and professional, so too did its school system. At the same time, the individual and community autonomy melted away as state governmentsand more recently national governmentsassumed increasing authority. As government became more powerful, political calculations dominated the design of school systems. The exclusion of American blacks from many public schools is but one unpleasant consequence of this dominance of government and politics in schools as is the rise of the suburban school districts as "asylums" from the city.5 While government schools achieved some of the goals of the common-school movement, they also brought with them many ills.