Basketball superstar LeBron James is getting major props — from Barack and Michelle Obama, no less — for underwriting a public school for at-risk students in his hometown, Akron, Ohio. His investment in the newly opened I Promise School is a welcome change for public education supporters. They have watched celebrities put their names and money behind alternatives to traditional school systems for years even though those districts educate the vast majority of America’s schoolchildren.
(Tennis great Andre Agassi, for example, has been pushing charter schools for years, along with Pitbull, Sean “Diddy” Combs and a host of others, while Earvin “Magic” Johnson was involved with a chain of for-profit schools for several years. And Obama, when president, supported the expansion of charter schools.)
But James focused on helping Akron Public Schools, which is the fifth-largest district in Ohio with about 22,000 students and where he attended school. Born to a teen mother who raised him alone when he was young, James famously missed a lot of school and has spoken about wanting to use his wealth to help underprivileged children have a better educational experience. Though James is leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers and moving to Los Angeles to play for the Lakers, his roots have always been in Akron.
The praise for James has come from far and wide, including from charter school supporters who no doubt would have preferred that James opened a charter, which is publicly funded but privately operated. (Ohio’s charter school sector has long been riddled with scandal, with the latest fiasco being the collapse of the for-profit cyber-charter Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT), which has been ordered to repay the state some $80 million.)
And James’s focus on building a school within a traditional public district suggests he understands the importance of the traditional public education system in the United States, which some argue is the country’s most important civic institution and which is under assault from school “reformers” who want to privatize it.
Still, the fact that this school opened only because of the good graces of a very wealthy, civic-minded athlete underscores the continuing problem with education funding in this country. And it highlights the push for school “choice” that has Betsy DeVos, President Trump’s education secretary, as its chief advocate.
Money for public education comes primarily from local funds, supplemented by state and federal sources. Though the percentages vary state to state, the largest chunk of public education money comes from property taxes, which perpetuates unequal resources for schools depending upon the wealth of an area. Federal funding is available to help close the gap but doesn’t come close.
In recent years, high-profile school reformers, chief among them the fabulously wealthy Bill Gates, have poured money and prestige into projects they said would improve educational opportunities for the neediest students — even though they lacked research or input from educators. Gates — through a number of initiatives, including funding the creation and implementation of the Common Core State Standards — played a key role in driving school reform during the Obama years. Other philanthropists joined in, helping create a movement fueled in part by personality.
That’s not how civic institutions should be run. America’s public schools should not have to depend on any wealthy individual or private entity to be sustained or improved.
If Americans really want all children to have equity in educational opportunity, then our governments at all levels have to ensure that happens, without depending on the market (which always has winners and losers) or the generosity of the wealthy (some of whom have limited attention spans). Not even LeBron James, the best basketball player on the planet (and in history, if you ask me, which you didn’t).
Yes, he deserves praise for throwing his money and celebrity behind what every kid in Amer…ica needs: a good, responsive, free public school. No, there’s nothing in his I Promise School that educators haven’t known kids need. That means resources to deal with them where they are — academically, emotionally and psychologically.
It’s not rocket science. It’s harder.