The only upside to Donald Trump’s petulant Friday night Twitter swipe at LeBron James was that it gave an extra publicity bump to the basketball star’s big new philanthropic project. Last week, James opened a new elementary school for at-risk students in his native Akron that he’s funding in partnership with the city. Some headlines about the I Promise School have focused on the fact that James has offered to pay college tuition for any of its graduates. But that’s not what’s really intriguing about the effort.
The most interesting thing about I Promise is that it’s a genuine public school, not a charter or a private school. James is shaping the school’s mission, and his family foundation is committed to spending at least $2 million annually to fund it. But Akron Public Schools will run the operation and provide the bulk of its resources. As the Cleveland Plain Dealer explains:
It’s a district-owned building. The district will hire and pay the teachers and administration. Kids will ride district buses to school. And they will all eat the free breakfast and lunch the district gives all students.
I Promise will eventually cost about $8 million a year to run out of the district’s regular budget, covered mostly by shifting students, teachers and money from other schools, the district says.
This is a refreshing departure from most celebrity forays into education, which have tended to revolve around the politically contentious charter school movement. Publicly funded and privately operated, charter schools are seen by their detractors as little more than vehicles for drawing resources away from traditional public schools and undercutting teachers unions. This is not entirely fair; some charters do great work and benefit from having a bit of freedom to try new education models. But many are middling or outright atrocious and have attracted less than savory for-profit management companies—sometimes with disastrous results for children. Michigan, for instance, has watched its rankings in reading and math collapse as the state has become home to more for-profit charters than anywhere else in the nation.
I Promise has a lot of qualities ordinarily associated with the better charters. It will have longer-than-normal school days, running from 9 to 5; a curriculum focused on science and tech; and beefed-up professional training and support programs for teachers. Every kid gets a Chromebook. And, following in the footsteps of charter projects like the Harlem Success Academy, it’s also going to offer wraparound services aimed at helping its students’ families, such as a food pantry, a GED program for parents, and a seven-week summer science and tech camp to help kids keep from sliding back on their academic progress. There are also some bells and whistles: Every kid is getting a bicycle.
Charter schools can often offer their students (and teachers) these sorts of resources in part because they receive a good deal of private philanthropic support your typical neighborhood school lacks. James is doing something a bit unusual by bringing them to an Akron public school.
Some education writers see this as a sign of the deeper problems in how we fund education. “That’s not how civic institutions should be run,” the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss wrote recently. “America’s public schools should not have to depend on any wealthy individual or private entity to be sustained or improved.”
Strauss is absolutely right. And if James could wave a wand and magically fix the inequities in America’s system of education funding so that every school for underprivileged kids looked like I Promise, I bet he would. In the meantime, what he’s doing may actually be the next best thing for one simple reason: He’s sending the message that it’s worth investing in our traditional public education systems, and that they should be trusted to run socially and academically ambitious schools.
“Messaging” may not seem like much, but in education policy, which tends to be incredibly faddish, it counts for a lot. The Gates Foundation and other charter school backers didn’t just throw money at new projects. They convinced the public that education needed to change and that hidebound teachers unions were holding kids back. Somehow we reached a point where a lot of Democrats became convinced that tying teacher pay to how their kids performed on standardized tests or letting private operators take over public education was the great civil rights cause of their day. They were evangelicals. LeBron is, in his own way, preaching the opposite: He’s a wealthy, famous, and increasingly vocal civil rights advocate saying that you should work with a city and its public schools, not undercut them.
In some ways, it’s useful to compare I Promise with Mark Zuckerberg’s famously troubled attempt to help Newark reinvent its public schools. The Facebook founder’s $100 million gift was meant to help turn the city into a staging ground for the education reform movement’s favorite ideas, with more charters and teachers paid for their performance. But much of the money ended up getting sapped away by high-priced consultants, and the top-down effort triggered an intense community backlash. James, in contrast, is starting small, providing a reasonable amount of targeted funding while working with the district to create what amounts to a demonstration project for what the public school system might be able to achieve. In other words, he’s being the anti-Zuck—and some kids will likely end up much better off for it.