The United States is a country built on a perception of itself as a "land of opportunity" with "liberty and justice for all." Education has long been viewed as the major route to a good society and to improving the life chances of individual citizens. "Faith in the power of education . . . has helped to persuade citizens to create the most comprehensive system of public schooling in the world'' (Tyack and Cuban, 1995:3).
Paradoxically, however, throughout the nation's history, Americans have tolerated great disparities in access to this pathway to opportunity. Until the last half of the 20th century, these disparities were often unacknowledged, hidden behind an aggregate picture of progress. This apparent march of progress, though, left many people behind. At mid-century (Tyack and Cuban, 1995:22): "A probe behind aggregated national statistics and the upbeat rhetoric of [school reformers] reveals major disparities in educational opportunities. These inequalities stemmed from differences in place of residence, family occupation and income, race, and gender, and from physical and mental handicaps. At mid-century American public education was not a seamless system of roughly similar common schools but instead a diverse and unequal set of institutions that reflected deeply embedded and social inequalities. Americans from all walks of life may have shared a common faith in individual and societal progress through education, but they hardly participated equally in its benefits."
As Tyack and Cuban indicate, manifestations of inequality were everywhere. In 1940 huge differences existed between rural and urban schools, magnified by large regional differences in educational funding. Both educational spending on and the educational attainment of rural children lagged behind their urban coun-