By Ari Bloomekatz
There are few public schools receiving as much attention these days as LeBron James’ I Promise School in Akron, Ohio — and it’s because it’s just that: a public school.
The school opened this summer to 240 3rd and 4th graders who were randomly selected out of a pool of those in the district significantly behind in reading. They will add a grade each academic year and plan to be a 1–8 school by 2022.
“I cannot say how impressed I am that the school @kingjames is opening today to serve low-performing students is a traditional public school. Instead of taking resources from the Akron Public Schools, he is adding to them. This is doing the work. Bravo,” tweeted investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones.
Because it’s a public school, it also means teachers will be unionized. But one defining aspect is its commitment to wraparound support that the school’s principal notes includes a family resource center on school grounds.
“We’re not only into nurturing and loving our students, but we are wrapping around — our arms around the entire family,” Brandi Davis, the school’s principal, told NPR.
Celebrities and millionaires and billionaires and tech giants and titans of industry and sports stars have a long and sordid history of thinking they know what’s best when it comes to education — and trying to profit off it.
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They either try to remake the wheel or overwhelmingly invest in private enterprises and charters that often end up draining already scarce resources from the same public school districts they claim to be helping.
A prime example is tennis star Andre Agassi who has earned headlines like “Andre Agassi’s pivot to education capitalist” and “Hedge Funds, Andre Agassi & Charter Schools: Education Capitalism in Action” for starting a chain of charter schools “even though his own Andre Agassi School is one of the lowest-performing schools in the state of Nevada,” according to a Democracy Now! interview with Diane Ravitch.
In Milwaukee, a venture capital firm that Agassi was involved in helped open the much-hyped North Point Lighthouse Charter School in 2013. But the group Schools and Communities United organized to discourage parents from enrolling and the school was closed down just a couple years later.
One of the reasons Schools and Communities United fought so hard was because there are 122 private voucher schools in Milwaukee that take a quarter of a billion dollars out of the public treasury every year, not to mention the other privately run charter schools like Agassi’s that take away even more money.
It’s also important to note that LeBron’s philanthropy stands in stark contrast to the massive public subsidies given to the billionaire NBA owners in the cities he plays in like Cleveland and Los Angeles, where public education is being dismantled.
In an article in The Nation about LeBron’s new school, the radical sportswriter Dave Zirin interviewed Rethinking Schools editor Jesse Hagopian about celebrities profiting off poor-performing charter schools and how LeBron’s new school is different:
Corporate education reformers have claimed that charter schools — taking public funds for privately run schools — are the only way to bring innovation to education. With his “I Promise” public school, LeBron has shook that idea like so many opponents on his way to the rack. By partnering with the Akron Public Schools — not trying to subvert them or profit off of them with an unaccountable charter — LeBron has demonstrated to the world the power of truly investing in public education.
Hagopian notes that LeBron isn’t going to save our nation’s education system, and that no athlete or celebrity ever will.
It’s wonderful that the I Promise School is public, but at the end of the day, no school should be the recipient of philanthropy. They should all be robustly and 100 percent publicly funded.
“Only an uprising of parents, students, and teachers will do that,” Hagopian said. “But LeBron’s decision to partner with Akron Public Schools, and not make a charter school is an ideological blow to the privatizers who have been arguing that the only way to ‘innovate’ in education is to get outside the public schools.”
Ari Bloomekatz is the managing editor of Rethinking Schools.
Illustrator Howard Barry’s work can be found at artofhowardbarry.com.