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Reading Bettina Love on School Reform

Love says the school system is racist but baselessly blames school choice for the problems.

Copyright © 2023 by Ari Armstrong
December 8, 2023; ported here December 28

I happened to be waiting for someone at the local library when I saw on the new-release shelf Bettina L. Love's Punished for Dreaming: How School Reform Harms Black Children and How We Heal. I'm interested in education and school reform, so I picked up the book and started browsing. Love "is the William F. Russell Professor of Teachers College at Columbia University," the back flap informs us. (Note: Numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in Love's book.) Here I discuss only Love's introduction, which I take to be indicative of her approach; I may comment on other chapters down the road.

I was immediately struck by two of Love's stories of her childhood. One of Love's friends, who had a traumatic life at home, was further traumatized at school. "When she was eleven, [she] had been body-slammed and put in a choke hold by her elementary school teacher," Love writes (2). As Love tells the story, this friend, who got low grades but excelled on the basketball court, eventually was berated by some of her teachers over an eligibility issue. After the girl "threw a punch" at one of the teachers involved, she was expelled (3).

Thankfully, Love's friend eventually worked her way into college. But it took her "many years of therapy to talk about her past and heal from the wounds of her public school education," Love tells us (4).

Love also did poorly in school but also excelled at basketball. Love "was in a vocational high school" and "enrolled in shop class for ninety minutes a day, making T-shirts and business cards." She "never took Advanced Placement or high-level math courses" and so felt "lost" when it came to taking the SAT. She asked a math teacher (who happened to be Black) for tutoring help, but the woman told her she was "not college material" (3).

However compelling Love's personal story, right away I was skeptical of Love's thesis. Weren't various school reforms a response to poor-quality public schools—which were (and are) especially bad for poorer students and for minorities—rather than the cause of the failures? Love's friend—the one who got expelled—told her, "I was No Child Left Behind before No Child Left Behind." Doesn't that imply the problems preceded the reforms? Yet Love laments "what is was like to be a Black public school kid in the Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Clinton years" (2). It seems like Love is quick to presume a causal link.

Love notes that the problem was not just the "racist public school system" (4–5). At Old Dominion University, she was put in unserious classes and "labeled [among the] 'dumb Black jocks' on arrival" (5). When Love told her athletic academic advisor that she wanted to change her major to education, Love writes, he told her, "You are from the inner city and went to an inner-city school. You are here to play basketball." Love soon transferred to the University of Pittsburgh, where she "began to excel" and earned her undergraduate and master's degrees.

In public school, Love writes, she was "punished with low expectations, physical violence, surveillance, standardized testing, and frequent suspensions" (7). Is not one of these things unlike the others? Is being asked to take a test really comparable to being body-slammed by a teacher? Are tests to demonstrate achievement really the enemy of low expectations? It seems rather that, properly implemented, they might be a way to help raise expectations. Again, it seems like Love is throwing things in a package that don't belong together.

Love sees the seeds of corruption in "the Reagan administration report on the state of American education," A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform (7). Love hones her thesis: "Reagan's presidency ushered in a new type of American Black bondage: the War on Black Children, in which his war on drugs worked in concert with school reform to pathologize and penalize Black children under school safety policies" (8).

I completely agree with Love that the war on drugs was a disaster especially (but not only!) for the Black community. And Reagan did expand that war. But he is not solely responsible for it. Republicans and Democrats before him and after him pursued comparable policies. For example, the current Democratic vice president, a Black-Asian woman, made her name as a drug warrior.

Love implicitly relies on the reader to imagine a Golden Age of education before Reagan came and messed it all up. But she doesn't come out and proclaim that presumption, perhaps because no such Golden Age existed (as she later recognizes).

As for "safety policies," no doubt they had unintended harms, especially for Black children. And policy makers should have predicted that. Yet we also have to acknowledge that, while some Black children were seriously harmed by "safety" policies gone awry, other Black children were seriously harmed—sometimes physically brutalized—because schools really were not safe for them. The "safety policies" in question often were the wrong solution, but that doesn't mean there was no underlying problem they were supposed to address.

It's not like Reagan just made up the problem of crime. He served as president during the '80s, exactly the decade in which violent crime reached its peak. Paradoxically but predictably, the drug war contributed to the violent crime rate, because it created a horrifically violent black market and helped finance violent gangs. But no one denies that public safety was a major problem during that era.

Love damns "the testing industry" and "punitive charter schools" (8)—as if standardized tests serve no purpose and all charter schools are evil. It's not like charter schools were stealing kids off the streets; children's parents chose to send them there, reasonably believing them to be better than the alternatives. If Love damns charter schools, then she must also damn the Black parents who chose to send their children to them.

Love is selling rage, not context or nuance. The Reagan education report was not just mistaken, and it was not only one small smudge of a much larger picture. No. In Love's world, that "report manufactured an educational crisis of catastrophic proportions that destroyed generations of Black families" (9). Some report!

Love puts her thumb on the problem when she blames "the exploitation of compulsory education" by various government and private actors (9). So she wants to repeal compulsory education laws and get government totally out of education, right? Of course not!

Love swears it "is not a conspiracy theory" to claim that the "conjoining of schools and prisons . . . is a well-executed plan that for the last forty years has taken the lives of Black children with surgical precision" (9). How did this work, exactly? "Long-standing public institutions [including education] were abandoned; the impact . . . criminalized our everyday lives inside and outside of schools, making carcerality inevitable" (10). But what exactly is she saying? How did the creation of neighborhood charter schools "criminalize" the lives of the students who attended those schools? At the very least, can we recognize that the term "inevitable" here is an exaggeration, however horrible the U.S. criminal system has been?

But Love does not have time to bother with details; she has demons to slay. "White supremacy and capitalism work in unison, even in education," Love writes (10). Never mind that, if we had consistent capitalism, drugs would be legal (no drug war) and schools would be free from government interference. Under capitalism, schools do not follow the dictates of federal education bureaucrats; such bureaucrats do not exist. What Love actually indicts are the government's socialized schools, only she finds it convenient to call whatever she does not like "capitalism." Never mind that some libertarian capitalists critique "school choice" measures such as vouchers because they do not represent genuine free markets or deep choice.

Love's work is proof that conspiracy mongering is as much at home on the radical left as it is on the Bircherite and Trumpist right.

People who worry about the "achievement gap" don't actually care about lifting the academic achievement of minority students, as Love has it; instead, they are just racists who think Black children "would never be as smart as White children" (9). It couldn't possibly be that people who worry bout the (very real!) achievement gap want to close the gap! And never mind that plenty of Black and Hispanic parents, educators, and community leaders also worry about the achievement gap.

It is not enough that various educational reformers be wrong and their ideas misdirected. Instead, "the past forty years of education reform . . . deliberately crafted policies to punish Black people for believing in and fighting for their right to quality public education" (10).

People who think the schools can be reformed are not merely wrong; they are racist and evil, driven by "anti-Blackness" (11).

People who run charter schools don't actually want their students to learn anything; instead, they "harm Black children in their anti-Blackness" because it is "lucrative for the reformers" to do so (11).

Things like charter schools and vouchers do not deliver funds equally regardless of race; instead, "'[s]chool choice' . . . is code for Black children's choices after White America has divvied up the resources needed for their children's education and Black parents in the inner city and poorer suburbs are left with educational scraps" (11).

Black parents who choose to open or use charter schools or to use vouchers (where available) are not autonomously making choices they believe are best for their families; instead, such choices somehow affirm "that White people are best able to determine the types of choices Black people have" (11).

Here to me is an especially telling bit. As mentioned, Love hates allegedly "punitive charter schools," in part because supposedly they "all too often only concern themselves with teaching Black children the basic skills for America's low-skill labor demands" (8). But, who, precisely, is trying to strip Black students of their opportunities to learn advanced math, a gateway to high-skilled jobs? Usually, it is the teacher-union-led educational establishment, and on the pretext of "equity." By contrast, charter schools typically emphasize academic rigor.

I suppose we could actually look to see how school choice programs are doing. Not all charter schools are the same, obviously, neither are all voucher programs. Nevertheless, at least some of the available evidence indicates that school choice helps rather than harms relatively poorer students. One recent paper looks at "how a Florida private school choice program affected public school students' outcomes as the program matured and scaled up." The results:

We observe growing benefits (higher standardized test scores and lower absenteeism and suspension rates) to students attending public schools with more preprogram private school options as the program matured. Effects are particularly pronounced for lower-income students, but results are positive for more affluent students as well.

But, again, Love is not interested in carefully evaluating programs or looking at studies or engaging charitably with people of different views.

So long as any element of "choice" exists within the government's public schools—and no doubt at least some such programs will continue—Love creates a convenient scapegoat on which to blame the failures of the teacher's unions and the educational establishment.

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