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"Disillusioned" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab

Education journalist Benjamin Herold explores the faltering US public education system in this well-researched, informative explanation of a poorly understood crisis. He portrays the ways suburban public schools are failing their student populations because the 20th-century suburban American Dream is now an ensnaring myth.

Herold recalls the post-World War II years when White families flourished in suburbia because of beneficial government policies. When those suburbs stopped growing, residents grew older, tax bases got smaller, and local school tax funding decreased. As lower-income families and people of color moved into these once-new communities, they were met with deteriorating schools and rising taxes.

 Herold presents a critical and effective examination of how history, hope, and racial issues collide in US suburbs by reporting the public school experiences of five 21st-century US families over three years.

In a White suburb of Atlanta, the Robinsons, a middle-class Black family, confront a school system that repeatedly punishes their son for minor infractions, hoping to discourage his attendance. The Beckers, a conservative White family who moves to affluent Lucas, a new Dallas exurb, encounter community “anxiety about the erosion of long-standing privileges,” and learn they cannot avoid crises faced by countless school districts across the country concerning finances, infrastructure, and budgets.

In Evanston, Illinois, a multiracial mom, Lauren Adesina, moves “into the complicated Black-white dynamics that defined Evanston’s segregated past, integrated present, and an uncertain future.” She joins an ultra-progressive parents’ group to challenge the status quo in this prominent, liberal Chicago area school district. And in Los Angeles, the low-income Hernandez Family struggles to help their children advance through the notoriously troubled schools of Compton. Finally, outside Pittsburgh, a Black mother, Bethany Smith, moves to suburban Penn Hill, and lives on the same street where author Benjamin Herold was raised, then angrily faces the devastating legacy left behind by White families like his.

The book’s author skillfully weaves together these five stories to support his thesis that generations of White families have extricated opportunity from heavily subsidized suburbs, then moved on to the next new suburb, leaving the mostly Brown and Black families who followed, with the bills for maintenance and repair.

While Herold grew up in “a middle-class white family that passively accepted suburbia's bounty,” he convincingly argues that “sweeping demographic changes, rising housing costs and the vanishing heart of America's middle class,” alongside the troubling history of segregation enforced by structural racism, have all created a systemic crisis: “suburbia is now home to a collision of competing dreams each of which seems to be crumbling.” Herold asks the reader to consider, how do we confront this troubled history? How do we build a national education system in which all can thrive?

Drawing on a stirring epilogue by Bethany Smith, the mother from Herold’s Penn Hill neighborhood, and his decorated career as an educator journalist, Herold offers a hopeful path toward renewal.

About the author: Benjamin Herold is a veteran education reporter whose work has appeared in Education Week, PBS NewsHour, Huffington Post, NPR, and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook. He has a master's degree in urban education from Temple University in Philadelphia.



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