Will Allentown See the Next Student Uprising?

In the midst of stories of scandal, mismanagement, and charterization of the Allentown School District, a growing number of students and teachers may just be ready to take their schools back. While it may be too early to call what’s happening in Allentown a “movement,” there are signs that something is indeed afoot and it may be a game changer for a city that has seen increasing inequality in the middle of an economic boom in Allentown’s Center City.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been hearing noise that students who have been organizing for the past several years to better their community may be ready to take their movement public and reclaim their education as a civil right. Earlier today, memes drawing attention to the disgraceful conditions in the ASD began appearing on social media using the hashtag #TheyDontCare. If my sources are correct, this may be just the beginning.

Anyone who knows anything about Allentown might ask themselves why the city has not seen a student or community uprising sooner. Allentown is the third largest city in the state and I have long held that the Lehigh Valley is the key to Pennsylvania’s progressive future – if we are to have one. And, I have to say, I really hope we are at a turning point. I lived on South 13th Street in Allentown for several years when I first moved to Pennsylvania. I have a bit of a love-affair with the city. It has the feel of my hometown, Utica, NY – another smaller city that was decimated by free-trade agreements and the outsourcing of family-sustaining jobs. But more so, it has to do with the people I got to know in my neighborhood. Families who moved to Allentown to give their kids a shot at better opportunities. Neighbors who met in small groups to clean up the streets, raise money for kids, or piece together a vibrant cultural scene in the midst of industrial ruin.

A School District Ripe for Change

On Monday, Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, announced that he will be conducting a comprehensive audit of Allentown Schools, including close scrutiny of the ways the District awarded charter school contracts. According to WFMZ-69 News, DePasquale will be paying particular attention to whether a recent deal between the Allentown School District and real estate developer Abe Atiyeh violated Pennsylvania’s sunshine laws and the state Ethics Act. The Auditor General will also review the District’s application process for charter schools.

The comprehensive audit follows a summer of scandal in the district surrounding the cash-strapped district’s rush to introduce more charter schools outside of public view. As the Morning Call reported on July 20, 2014:

When the Allentown School District approved a lease in January for its new alternative high school and an application for a twice-rejected charter school, administrators and board members knew about — but made no public mention — of a side agreement involving developer Abe Atiyeh.

In a Jan. 30 letter outlining the agreement, Atiyeh pledged not to open any more charter schools in the district in exchange for the district’s approval of a charter school in a building he owns at 601 Union St.

Less than a week before the Morning Call broke the news of the school district’s secret deal with Atiyeh, the Reading Eagle reported that Atiyeh was named in a search warrant as part of an FBI raid of Reading City Hall. Turns out that Atiyeh is a pretty big player in the region when it comes to the charterization of our public schools. He buys old schools and then leases them back to charter schools for a profit. The story surrounding Atiyeh and DePasquale’s move to audit the district has all the intrigue and mystery of a juicy prime-time TV movie event.

However, juicy the Atiyeh story may be, it pales in comparison to the story of the systematic de-funding, mismanagement, and – dare I say – neglect that the Allentown School District has faced for years. In a 2014 report by Rutgers University professor, Bruce Baker, Allentown, Reading, and Philadelphia were ranked as the most fiscally disadvantaged public schools in the country, bested only by Chicago. As Baker reported,

Philadelphia schools–like Chicago schools–are almost uniformly high in poverty concentration, while district per-pupil revenue is low by comparison to surroundings. Quite possibly, the nation’s most fiscally disadvantaged local public school districts lie to the north and west of Philadelphia, in the districts of Reading and Allentown. These districts sit at the bottom of the revenue distribution and serve very high-need student populations.

Baker’s report points to the fact that the fiscal crisis in Allentown and the other school districts barely scraping by has to do with a systematic neglect of the state to adequately fund public schools through a fair funding formula. The implications are even worse when we see that outside of major metropolitan areas, the “savage inequalities,” as Baker calls them, disproportionately effect predominately Hispanic school districts:

A seemingly peculiar finding regards the disparate racial distribution of fiscal disadvantage. Predominately Hispanic school districts outside of major cities, including midsized and smaller cities and large towns, appear more frequently on the fiscally disadvantaged list. Is there something substantively different about the demography, local economics, and/or state aid of these communities in particular? This question warrants further exploration beyond the scope of this paper. They include Utica, New York (Author’s Note: That’s MY hometown); Reading and Allentown, Pennsylvania; and Waukegan Illinois.

The fiscal shape of Allentown’s public schools stands in stark contrast t0 the Lehigh Valley’s much touted economic growth. As the Morning Call reported earlier this year,

The region has nearly 3 percent more jobs — the highest increase of any major Pennsylvania region — than before the Great Recession began in 2007, Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corp. said Tuesday.

“The Lehigh Valley has launched out of the recession with more development and job creation than any other region in Pennsylvania, including Philadelphia and Pittsburgh,” said Don Cunningham, LVEDC president and CEO.

While there seems ample support from state legislators to throw money and tax breaks at corporations willing to relocate to the area, there is an equal force in the opposite direction looking to dismantle the public infrastructure for the bulk of the city’s residents.

Tale of Two Cities Redux

Allentown is a city on the brink – a post industrial version of Dickens’s classic tale. There are truly amazing developments in the city, but those developments like most experiments in targeted revitalization are experienced unevenly and can further exacerbate existing inequities. Allentown’s public schools illustrate that dynamic in stark relief. What does it say about who we are that we are willing to starve our most sacred, democratic institutions — the public schools that nurture citizens — while pumping millions into an economic playground to serve the cultural appetites of a select few.

If Allentown students do shift into political mobilization mode to demand their civil rights — for education, for shared development, for a truly unified community — I have a feeling that there is a way beyond the kind of either-or politics that have led us to this point. We saw a glimmer of such a future when students in Philadelphia walked out of their schools in support of their teachers and their schools. But for their vision to have a shot, we’ll have to take a lead from Allentown’s youth and take a stand right along side them.

We’ll keep you posted.

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1 Comment on Will Allentown See the Next Student Uprising?

  1. Kevin, the Allentown School District has had massive budget surpluses the last couple years. ($11.6 million last year alone) The issue isn’t with the amount of state funding that they’re receiving, it’s with the way it’s being managed. The ASD is notorious for laying off x number of teachers, claiming that they need x amount of money to hire them all back, getting exactly what they asked for, and then only hiring half of them back and “disappearing” the extra funding. Until there are multiple fundamental changes at the district level, the ASD will continue to flounder.

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