LeBron James and I Promise: What Does it Promise?

Recently, Akron Public Schools announced that it had created a partnership with basketball great LeBron James. Working with the LeBron James Family Foundation (LJFF), the district will be opening a school this year for at-risk youth.

This is not the first time a celebrity has been involved in the opening of a school, but in the past, these have been charter schools. Charter schools use taxpayer dollars, sometimes augmented by private contributions, but don’t generally have the same accountability and transparency as public schools. Because these charter schools still need operators, celebrities struggle with being much more than a figurehead.

James’s school is indeed different in that regard: Akron Public Schools will be providing the standard school resources (such as facilities, teachers, and government compliance), while LJFF will be providing after-school support and perks like uniforms and bicycles.

Away from the media hype, this sounds like a great arrangement. Were LJFF simply a decent, grass-roots foundation dedicated to helping underserved student populations, creating a public school specifically to work with a strong and accomplished after-school program sounds like a winning approach. Both the school and the foundation would benefit from such an arrangement, as long as both groups are willing to bend and listen.

And aside from the history of other celebrities pushing into education and throwing their ego around, I have no solid evidence that the I Promise K-8 school won’t be a model for such public school/foundation hybrids going forward.

I want the school to succeed, but I’m worried about what it represents.

◊♦◊

As a teacher, I see a lot of my colleagues getting excited over the new school. I’ve seen it called a game-changer, a model for the next generation of schools around the country.

These are the same teachers who rail against the influence of Bill Gates and the Gates Foundation. In their view, Bill Gates is Lucifer himself, a meddler who uses his millions to impose an arbitrary will.

When I asked what the difference is between LeBron James, a non-educator, and Bill Gates, a non-educator, getting involved in education reform, the response was telling: James listens to teachers.

While Gates has come up with ideas that are large, expensive, and likely to fail (and which have, by the Foundation’s own admission, proceeded to fail), James has started small in his hometown of Akron and has been working to find ways to help educators through augmentation and support.

Superficially, there is little that is unique to the I Promise School. Some of the perks being touted (free meals, free busing) are required because it’s a public school.

Free uniforms are nice and all, but evidence is mixed about whether schools should have uniforms in the first place. School uniforms, meanwhile, are disproportionately used in inner city schools, giving the concept the baggage that goes with inequitable treatment of inner city schools (read: students of color) overall.

Free college tuition is great, too, but not new. For instance, Detroit offers free tuition to its public school graduates. Likewise, many public schools offer GED and job placement support to parents.

Meanwhile, things like extended day and extended year schedules are commonplace in charter schools, and have made inroads into public schools as well.

Granted, the promise of free bicycles and helmets for students is something I personally haven’t heard of before, but it’s hardly enough of a change to merit this level of praise.

This school is different because a celebrity is financially supporting a public school instead of forming yet another charter school. Diane Ravitch, a vocal and consistent opponent of charter schools, made this clear in her short blog post.

This school is different because public school teachers, frustrated by decades of budget cuts, arbitrary job assessments created by politicians who aren’t themselves educators, and mockery by the society at large, finally feel like a rich celebrity is willing to listen to us.

◊♦◊

Julia Freeland Fisher of the Clayton Christenson Institute had this to say: “I care less whether it’s unique and more if it creates a proof point, and an infrastructure in the school system, and starts to pressure policymakers to put money behind poverty relief.”

Here’s the best outcome of this: Parents realize that there aren’t enough LeBron Jameses to go around. They go to their own politicians and demand better funding so their kids can get proper education models, too. We stop abusing teachers. We pay them properly (although I’ve seen no mention of teacher pay in all the enthusiasm). We give them proper tools.

And the politicians follow through, giving education the respect it’s given in other countries, countries with better outcomes.

Here’s the worst outcome of this: Politicians like Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education, use this act as evidence that public schools can survive from private patronage, leaving local schools to seek out their own saviors.

For someone like DeVos, who has been working for years to expand for-profit charter school presence and the increased privatization of schools, I’m inclined to think she’ll have the latter thought, not the former.

That aside, though, we should be ashamed of ourselves that it’s come to this.

◊♦◊

I’m glad that LeBron James has seen a need and has moved in to fill it as best as he can. Good for him.

I’m sad that there was a need in the first place.

We should not have let our public school system degrade to the point where multiple states have or are considering policies to allow minimally trained people teach our children, including those who have never been in front of a classroom.

We should not have let our public school system degrade to the point where buildings have broken furniture, overcrowded classes, and mushrooms growing inside of them.

We should not have let our public school system degrade to the point where we teachers get excited, even ecstatic, that a rich person has deigned to help us out, because we’ve lost faith that the government will ever do anything.

And what saddens me even more is the fear that we still haven’t reached bottom. Many of my colleagues see this school as the watershed moment where the American populace wakes up and realizes the time is now to turn the tide.

I hope they’re right. I fear they’re not.

Originally published on The Good Men Project.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.