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Abstract

From its inception in the mid-1960s, the concept of “voluntary integration” had a twin motive: to provide urban American school systems with targeted sites for racially integrated education and to promote centers of academic innovation and distinction. Mounting pressure from civil rights activists and the federal government had driven the desegregation goal. The latter mandate was designed, as Chicago school planners put it, “to anchor the whites that still reside in the city.” “Selective Renewal” chronicles Chicago’s voluntary school integration efforts between the 1960s and the 1980s, interpreting their effects on political life at the neighborhood level and their consequences within civic discourses of reform and renewal. The dissertation poses three interventions in the broader historiography. First, the study traces the prehistory of school choice to its roots in the era of civil rights and urban crisis. Second, the project demonstrates the role that voluntary integration played in processes of spatial renaissance in the urban core of the late-twentieth-century city. Finally, it presents educational politics as an ideological arena in which post-civil-rights creeds of multiculturalism were made coherent with the stratifications of meritocratic markets and shifting valuations of urban space. During the years covered by this dissertation, watchwords of the era—choice and community—shaped the intellectual framework, policy toolbox, and moral language that educational reformers brought to their work. Ultimately, the dissertation argues that these concepts generated new definitions of success for urban education, marked particular spaces with the promise of that success, and in doing so, ratified new regimes of inequality in urban education. In addition to affording a ground-level view of the contingent development of the magnet concept—an exceptionally resilient innovation of America’s desegregation era— the story told here provides an indispensable context against which the the choice-and-accountability movements of the late twentieth century ought to be understood. The ideological embrace of choice as a reformist agenda at the end of the century required the administrative practice of choice during the desegregation era that preceded it.

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