Diverse Families Discover Failing Schools and Vanishing Dreams in Suburban Areas in Latest Book

In his recently published book “Disillusioned,” education journalist Benjamin Herold presents a cautionary tale for the 21st century, offering a somber reflection on the growth and subsidization of America’s suburbs after World War II. Herold argues that the promise of the American Dream has not materialized for families of color who followed the initial residents. Herold highlights the Lovejoy Independent School District near Dallas, where black mortgage loan applicants face a 23% higher denial rate compared to white applicants with similar incomes.

Moreover, Herold reveals that even the advantage of superior schools, which attracted many families to the suburbs, is no longer guaranteed, especially for non-white and non-native-born individuals. Instead of an education upgrade, families often encounter underfunded and troubled schools, bureaucratic obstacles, teachers’ union contracts that hinder significant changes, and discriminatory practices that shatter their hopes for refuge.

As an education journalist for Education Week and a current journalism professor at Temple University, Herold dedicated four years to studying the historical development of suburbs. His research revealed a pattern: as suburbs age, municipal revenues decline while infrastructure maintenance costs rise. This issue is compounded by a culture of political favoritism and deferral of responsibility.

One case study, the Evanston district outside Chicago, emphasizes the challenges faced by superintendent Paul Goren. Goren describes the precarious situation of the district, saying, “I landed in a district that had a foundation of quicksand. It was wobbly on the instructional side, with lots of people doing their own thing because that was what they had done for years. We were [also] facing some level of financial doom.”

According to Herold, suburbs have experienced a relentless cycle of racialized development and decline since World War II, resembling a Ponzi scheme. His book explores the struggles of five diverse families in suburban Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Pittsburgh, with one family residing just three houses away from Herold’s childhood home in Penn Hills.

Herold delves into the experiences of these families, providing a deeply researched and personal account of their challenges compared to the ease with which his own family enjoyed suburban life. The 74’s Greg Toppo conducted an interview with Herold, which has been edited for length and clarity.

Herold reflects on his personal experiences growing up in Penn Hills, noting that his father had to sell their childhood home for a quarter of its original value in 2014. He attributes this fate to the inescapable downfall of inner-ring suburbs like his. The suburbs no longer function as they did in the past due to unsustainability and the burden placed on future generations by previous residents.

Herold argues that the aftermath of the suburban bubble is currently unfolding, with newer suburban families of color disproportionately bearing the economic burdens that wealthier white families like his had already extracted. He emphasizes the importance of considering the larger picture, as the cyclical process of suburban development and decline is difficult to grasp through isolated snapshots. To gain a better understanding, Herold follows five families at different stages of this process.

The lens of public schools proves valuable for comprehending the bigger picture. Herold highlights the anger, frustration, and disillusionment that many suburban parents experience despite following all the guidelines, facing discriminatory practices, and witnessing their children being subjected to racial slurs and unfair discipline.

One of Herold’s subjects, Bethany Smith, happens to live just three doors down