So much is being written about equity in education of late but getting a true big-picture look at the challenges in achieving it is something few can speak to like former EdWeek journalist Benjamin Herold. Benjamin recently turned his expertise in writing about K-12 policy and classrooms toward an examination of how the promise of the American Dream and equitable education has unfolded for five suburban families in his new book, Disillusioned. In a Q & A with 5 Questions, Ben shares his impetus for writing the book and his findings regarding the current education landscape.
Why Did You Write This Book?
After leaving my hometown in suburban Pittsburgh, I rarely looked back. As a journalist, I wanted to understand the gaps between America’s promises and its realities, which I still assumed were rooted in the cities we’d abandoned and the rural outposts we’d forgotten.
But then, in 2015, a flood of devastating headlines began pouring out of Penn Hills. The same public school system that had once served my family so well had run up a staggering $172 million debt. Infrastructure was crumbling. Teachers were being furloughed. Programs were being slashed. Home values were stagnating. Property taxes were rising. And it all coincided with a dramatic demographic transformation: The Penn Hills public schools, 72% white when I graduated in 1994, were now 63% Black. That meant thousands of families of color had come to suburbia in search of the same American Dream my white family had already enjoyed, only to find they’d been left to pick up the tab for all the opportunities we’d already extracted.
Why Does It Matter?
We Americans have invested so many hopes and dreams in places like Penn Hills. The suburbs and their public schools are still where we go to give our children a better life, which is a hugely powerful thing.
But when I saw my hometown spiraling, I wanted to know if the same forces were at work elsewhere. So I spent the next four years reporting not just in Penn Hills, but also in suburban Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles. I got to know five very different families living and sending their children to public schools in each of these communities. And what I found was that the hopes and dreams that brought them to suburbia are collapsing beneath their feet.
The resulting disillusionment is fueling much of the angst and conflict we’re now seeing across suburbia and suburban school boards. This is a huge problem, because these families are right: we *were* sold a bill of goods, and we bought it up eagerly, and we can no longer avoid confronting a troubling truth: As Charles Marohn of Strong Towns writes, America’s postwar suburban boom is a gigantic Ponzi scheme, and we’re all in big trouble when it collapses.
What Surprised You The Most?
First, the scale of the demographic changes that are sweeping through suburbia. As recently as 1990, America’s suburbs were 79 percent white. Now, they’re 55 percent white. Among the country’s largest metropolitan areas, inside suburban public schools, white children are already a minority.
And second, how intractable the problems facing American suburbs now are. One community featured in the book is Evanston, Illinois. It’s a leafy college town, highly educated and quite wealthy, with a 50-year history of maintaining racially balanced public schools — all of which gives the town many advantages relative to newer post-WWII suburbs that popped up practically overnight and were exclusionary from the start.
But even in Evanston, I encountered profound disillusionment. Parents were still dealing with huge systemic disparities and awful interpersonal horrors; the mom I followed was moved to activism after her young son was called a racial slur at school. And even after progressive parents of color gained control of the school board, the root problems were hardly solved; the district ended up backing away from its longstanding commitment to racial balance, moving instead to build a new school right near the site of the segregated all-Black school that had been closed in the late 1960s to facilitate desegregation.
Thoughts on how the nation moves forward on these issues?
I don’t offer any easy solutions; doing so would diminish the magnitude of the challenges suburbia now faces, and it would perpetuate the kind of magical thinking that got us in such trouble in the first place.
But I did find hope in a surprising place. For many, Compton, Calif. remains synonymous with urban blight. But that obscures its history as a prototype of the all-white bedroom suburbs that proliferated after WWII; the Bush family (yes, that Bush family, including George H.W., Barbara, and George W.) lived in Compton in the late 1940s. It also obscures the fragile rebirth now underway in the local public schools. The debt, disinvestment, and disrepair that followed the collapse of Compton’s exclusionary foundation wreaked havoc for decades, but the leadership of the Compton Unified School District is now modeling an approach other aging suburbs would be wise to consider. At heart, Compton schools are working to revive the old suburban social contract, which entailed massive public investment in a community’s children. But what’s different in Compton is that commitment now extends to all, including the undocumented family from Mexico whom I follow in the book.
Any major developments since the book has been published?
Go to a school board meeting or sit through some high school math classes in a suburban community near you. Soon enough, you’ll see a painful truth being laid bare: the diversification of suburbia did not lead to a universal American Dream, untethered from whiteness and available equally to all. Instead, the suburbs are now home to a collision of competing dreams—of racial advantage and exclusion, of equal access to opportunity, and of harmonious integration—each of which now seems to be crumbling.
The fallout from this process is just beginning, and I believe it will go a long way toward defining the next few decades of American life.
But keep looking, and we’ll also find in communities like Compton the new American Dreams now taking root and offering hope for a better future.