As I reported last week, students in the Allentown School District are organizing in the face of what they see as an administration and a state legislature that just doesn’t care about their education or their future. Using the hashtag, #TheyDontCare, students released the first set of memes last week with the message: “40% of Allen and Dieruff students will drop out” tagged with #TheyDontCare. Increasingly, the #TheyDontCare hashtag is being followed by #ButWeDo.
Over the past few days, the next round of memes have been released, further dramatizing the situation in the Allentown School District. The memes make the case that it’s not enough to simply point to the drop out rate. Rather, it is just important to understand what happens with the 60% of student who do not drop out: only 19% of students who graduate from Allentown high schools will go to a four year college. If that were not enough, only 7% of Allentown students will go on to earn a bachelors degree.
Here’s the four memes that began appearing on Facebook and Twitter:
The student organizing in Allentown is connecting up with an emerging national trend to link the organizing we see in the #BlackLivesMatter movement with the increasingly powerful movement by students, parents, and teachers to defend public education, especially public education in America’s inner cities. Depending upon how these movements develop, we just might be seeing the beginning of a broad-based progressive alliance that can change a 30-year trend of attacking public programs, defunding schools in favor of prisons, militarizing police forces, and redistributing wealth from working families to the top 1%. Such a broad-based movement has the potential to attack BOTH the daily assault on African-Americans and Hispanics AND an economic agenda that wreaks havoc on working families.
In the article, “Black Lives Matter – At School Too!,” in The Nation this past January, George Joseph was already noticing the ways the #BlackLivesMatter movement against police brutality and murder was beginning to organize in defense of public schools as a civil rights issue:
“Black lives matter! The EAA is killing me!” On December 5, students at Eastern Michigan University staged a die-in at their school’s Board of Regents meeting, after the board voted to continue its partnership with the Education Achievement Authority, the controversial state-run district which has taken over fifteen Detroit public schools since its inception in 2012. Almost two weeks later, on December 17, when Baltimore’s school board voted to shut down the first of five schools, high school students also staged a die-in, chanting, “Black lives matter!” and “The school board has failed us!” The board soon fled. Without missing a beat, the students took the commissioners’ chairs and held a community forum on the closures. The next day in an uncoordinated action in Philadelphia, public school student organizers staged a die-in in front of their district building, mourning the 2013 loss of 12-year-old Laporshia Massey, who died from an asthma attack after being sent home from a school with no nurse on duty.
Like most majority black school districts in America, the school districts of Baltimore, Detroit and Philadelphia regularly suffer school closures, high teacher attrition, understaffed schools and increasingly crowded classrooms. But while these deprivations are often written off as the inevitable result of urban white flight and depreciating tax bases, the reality is not so simple. In the neoliberal era, urban school districts’ financial woes have been aggravated by state takeovers, gratuitous budget cuts and wasteful privatization efforts. As black student activists nationwide have made clear in these recent demonstrations, public school austerity, like police brutality, is another form of racist state violence. Public school austerity, driven in part by the much-celebrated school reform movement, assaults these students’ central community institutions, crams them into over-policed schools, and reduces their education to preparation for the low wage workforce rather than democratic self-determination.
As Pennsylvanians know all too well – unless they have chosen to ignore the issue of inner-city schools altogether – the austerity-minded attacks on Philadephia’s public schools have not only been devastating to students’ education, those attacks have also been deadly. Joseph laid out those consequences starkly:
Philadelphia, where black students make up the majority of students in both district and charter schools, several students have died because schools cannot afford to fill basic positions like school nurses and counselors. This is not simply because the district is a poor community. One of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s first moves in office was to cut about $1 billion in education funding statewide, leaving Philadelphia schools in a $629 million hole. Furthermore, because Pennsylvania does not have a standard education funding formula, black students’ education allotments are at the mercy of state lawmakers. A 2014 analysis, for example, found that, controlling for poverty, predominantly white districts receive thousands more in funding per pupil:In
Joseph’s article shows the ways that college students attending colleges or universities near public schools systems under attack – especially colleges and universities that enroll a significant number of students who graduated from those public schools – have taken an increasing role in helping organize high school students. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has found especially fertile ground on these campuses, and college students have become a source of political mentorship and training for high school students who have decided “enough is enough!”
Given the density of colleges and universities in and around Allentown – including DeSales University, East Stroudsburg University, Kutztown University, Lehigh Carbon Community College, Lehigh University, Moravian College, Muhlenberg College, and Northampton County Community College – it should not surprise anyone if we see a similar alliance between college students and high school students as Allentown School District students mobilize to demand their civil rights to an equal and quality education.
Colleges and Universities are often seen as bastions of diversity and community engagement – and that is generally true if you confine your impressions to the mission statements of those universities. However, the reality is generally quite different. For example, here is the Mission and Vision Statements from Kutztown University, where I teach:
Kutztown University’s mission is to provide a high quality education at the undergraduate and graduate levels in order to prepare students to meet lifelong intellectual, ethical, social, and career challenges.
Kutztown University aspires to be a regional center of excellence providing opportunities for advanced academic, cultural, and public service experiences, within a caring community, designed to promote success in a global society (emphasis mine).
For the most part, colleges and universities are doing a pretty good job when it comes to providing and education for careers and cultural appreciation. But when it comes to providing an education to prepare students to help deepen democracy and organize to defend communities and public institutions, those same institutions have mixed records. That is especially true in over the past decade as college and universities are faced with increased pressures to become “market focused” while finding their budgets slashed. We have yet to see a strong, sustained student movement on any of the colleges campuses mentioned above – at least if we define a “strong student movement” as a student movement that is active in the public and has become a player in defining the shape of public discourse and policy. That does not mean, however, that there is no organizing is going on.
Every political movement is proceeded by years if not decades of organizing that goes on year after year, often under the radar of the media and official recognition. Strong movements almost always emerge following such sustained organization. I know, personally, that there has been many students organizing for years on college and university campuses in and around Allentown. The question now is whether the Allentown student organizing will provide a spark around which we will see students, teachers, parents, and community members come together to take back our futures.