In Dr. Bettina L. Love’s Punished for Dreaming: How School Reform Harms Black Children and How We Heal (St. Martin’s Press), she examines the abuses inflicted on children by the Reagan-era War on Drugs. Love addresses how biased rhetoric and discriminatory educational reforms worked in tandem with the drug war to target Black students. Through firsthand accounts of Black individuals, the author and activist puts a human face on racist, government-sanctioned policy, revealing its long-term impact on generations of Black lives.

PW caught up with Love to talk about Punished for Dreaming, the 25 real-life people she writes about, the Abolitionist Teaching Network, and why she's hopeful for the future.

What led you to write this particular book at this particular time?

Forty years ago, this April, in 1983, this country manufactured an education crisis. It told the world that American children were failing, and kids who looked like me were the cause of a “rising tide of mediocrity” that threatened the future of the nation. That 35-page report, “A Nation at Risk,” was released a year after President Ronald Reagan declared a War on Drugs, which was a War on Black People. The War on Drugs and “A Nation at Risk” worked in concert to put educational targets on the backs of Black children through harmful and violent education reforms. I was born in 1979. These reforms took aim at my generation, the hip-hop generation. I am also part of the post–civil rights generation; we were told that we would reap the educational benefits from the sacrifices of our parents and grandparents who defied vicious mobs to integrate schools. When I understood that education failed to deliver on these promises, I became curious about the educational lives of my generation. I think this book is particularly important right now because it lays bare the history of the last 40 years of education reform that forms the foundation for the current manufactured education crisis: woke agenda in education, critical race theory (CRT), and the banning of books and curricula that center Black and queer people. This book tells not only the educational story of my generation but also the story that everyone concerned about public education needs to understand: how the field of education is currently being used to destabilize democracy.

The book features the accounts of 25 Black individuals. What can you share about these individuals and why you chose to feature their stories in particular?

I share these stories to give a human face to education policy and reform. We often discuss policy, particularly in education, as if it is benevolent or benign, but these reforms do harm. The language we use in education—such as “school accountability,” “data,” “achievement gap,” “school choice,” “underprivileged,” and “merit”—removes the humanity and therefore the harm from education. This language allows us to dispose of Black children without a pang of conscience. I wanted to tell the story of how harmful school reform is but through the lives of people who have lived this harm. These interviews are more than data points or individual grievances about a bad school experience; they represent generations of pain, trauma, and loss inflicted on Black children by America’s public school system.

Tell me about the Abolitionist Teaching Network and its mission.

I cofounded ATN with a group of amazing teachers, scholars, and community organizers in 2020. We wanted to be an organization that served as a space to learn with and provide the tools to help teachers, parents, and students fight injustice in their schools. ATN provides grants to educators to fund projects focused on abolition in their schools and communities. We have awarded over $250,000 in three years. Our goal is to be a space for teachers, parents, and students to work with and learn from community organizing to fight educational injustice through the lens of abolition and transformative justice.

What are the first steps to take for overhauling the American school system? Should such a transformation take place, what do you envision the new landscape looking like?

I argue in the book that to start to repair the American public school system, we need the fullness of educational reparations. Educational reparations is more than compensation for harm; it’s the processes of accountability, truth-telling, cessation, collective healing, and transformation. If we really want to explore a path toward education justice and work toward something resembling true democracy, we need to get serious about what actual repair is for that harm. In the book, I lay out the six categories where Black people are owed educational reparations, totaling $2 trillion for the last 40 years of educational harm due to “reform.” That number should give you a visceral idea of how much intellectual, creative, and entrepreneurial potential was lost in the Black community.

Can you go into more detail about how the War on Drugs impacted school policies and further contributed to racist ideologies?

When presidents, first ladies, politicians, and law enforcement on a national scale start labeling a generation of Black children as crack babies, thugs, and super-predators, it’s inevitable that school officials start creating policies based on these beliefs. America incarcerates millions of Black Americans based on these same racist beliefs. Sadly, our public education system is in lockstep with the policies of mass incarceration. The War on Drugs entered school buildings through the D.A.R.E program; metal detectors; police patrolling school buildings and arresting and assaulting students; truancy laws that fine parents and in some cases put them behind bars; high-stakes standardized testing that pushes students out of school; charter schools where children know there is a “no excuses” policy, which functions as zero tolerance; and broken windows theories of criminology. The racist rhetoric and the policies of the War on Drugs made harmful school reforms seem necessary and urgent. Carcerality became inevitable as Black students were labeled criminals inside and outside of school.

What is your response to recent attempts to ban children’s literature? Do you feel that such attempts are disproportionately targeting books that feature stories of Black lives?

Book bans are not just about banning books, but also determining who belongs in society. The right is attempting to erase Black people from America’s memory through public education. Curriculum is a powerful tool for creating a sense of belonging, self-worth, and pride. When the right uses book bans to erase Black people from the curriculum, they are telling Black children they don’t belong here, they are not welcome in this nation, and that their ancestors did not suffer from a violent and unjust race-based system or contribute meaningfully to America’s progress. We must also see these bans as part of a larger plot to destabilize and sow distrust in America’s belief in public education. The end goal is to privatize education. If you want to privatize education, one of the first things you have to do is make people believe that public education is failing their children, that the institution is so corrupt it can no longer serve the people. These book bans are not the end, they are an essential component of the plan to destroy public education.

Are you hopeful for the future?

I am very hopeful. In education alone, teachers are taking stands against these bans in their classrooms every day. Parents are speaking out and getting involved. Students are more curious than ever to learn about the things that are being kept from them. And more broadly, California is seriously examining reparations. More people are seeking out therapy and speaking openly about mental health than ever. People are forming debt collectives to relieve their neighbors from the crushing financial burden of debt. Each time a hotline is created to call trained crisis counselors instead of the police, each time a prison is closed, I am hopeful. Each time I see a mutual aid campaign, I am hopeful. Each one of these acts is evidence that people are pushing back, finding community, learning how to heal, and demanding a society that does less harm. This pressure to resist harm enacted by regular people is the foundation of my activism and of my hopefulness.