Basketball’s best player has departed his rust-belt home state for the second time, decamping, once again, for sunnier, glitzier environs. But LeBron James, newly minted Los Angeles Laker, learned an invaluable lesson from his first breakup with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Back in 2010, he left his devoted fans empty-handed and wounded—the Cavs’ owner called it a “cowardly betrayal.” He exited without a championship and dramatically revealed his plan to join the Miami Heat in a made-for-TV event, The Decision. To Cleveland’s beleaguered faithful and a rapt sports world he announced, “I’m going to take my talents to South Beach,” then proceeded to win two championships there and become one of the world’s most famous athletes. Cavs fans clapped back in public displays of catharsis, gathering in public squares to tear their garments and burn his jersey.
The optics of this episode were especially unfortunate because they belied James’s generosity. He had raised funds and donated personally to charitable causes nationally (including a portion of the proceeds from The Decision to Boys & Girls Clubs of America). And he had contributed meaningfully to a host of local initiatives. But starting with the touching 2014 announcement of his return to Cleveland—“My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball”—an older, wiser, and more politically astute James has publicly worn that loyalty on his sleeve. His local philanthropy has grown, and his outreach to community leaders through advisory boards, a student-ambassador initiative, and public meetings has been commendable.
Beyond all of this, James is leaving two particularly valuable parting gifts. The 2016 NBA title he helped win will be Cleveland’s forever. And, thanks to his substantial philanthropic investment, his hometown of Akron (about 40 miles outside Cleveland) is getting a brand-new public elementary school. But whereas James’s 2010 departure will be remembered for its short-term ham-handedness and long-term payoff with the title, this new school might, unfortunately, be remembered for its short-term savvy and long-term failure to meet expectations.
First and foremost, the creation of the I Promise School should be celebrated. An NBA star has every right to hoard his hard-earned money. But, via his family foundation and in partnership with other community-based organizations, LeBron James is launching a school that will serve some of Akron’s most disadvantaged kids. It will have a curriculum focused on science, technology, engineering, and math. And since many of its young scholars will be grappling with the stresses associated with growing up in poverty, the school will also have a range of “wrap-around” services (a food pantry and health care) and prioritize “social-emotional learning,” a catchall term for important but not strictly academic skills like resilience and decisionmaking.
I Promise will have a longer school year and longer days (providing more learning time for academically struggling boys and girls). The school’s teachers will have access to a personal trainer and weekly professional development. Families will have access to a GED program and job training. Each student will be given a Chromebook and a bicycle. And, even flashier than the school’s wall of 114 game-worn LeBron shoes, all graduates of I Promise can eventually have their tuition paid at the University of Akron as part of a partnership between the university, James’s foundation, and JPMorgan Chase.
At the school’s grand opening, James underscored how and why he was giving back to his community. “I know the streets they walk. I know the trials and tribulations that they go through. I know the ups, the downs. I know everything that they dream about. I know all the nightmares that they have because I’ve been there.”
This is a feel-good story played to the max. But it is not too cynical to wonder whether the feel-good factor was prioritized in the creation of I Promise. Plenty of schools have provided extended learning time and social services and nevertheless generated disappointing student-achievement results. But this sort of encouragement is important to disadvantaged communities, both as actual support and as a symbol of meaningful investment in families and kids. James, understandably, wants to leave his hometown on the best of terms. Indeed, many philanthropists give to low-risk, popular endeavors precisely because they want to be embraced by their communities and avoid unnecessary blowback.
But philanthropic activities shouldn’t aim to engender goodwill if it comes at the expense of the long-term success of the enterprise. The I Promise effort may—and I emphasize only may—have crossed that line. The issue is that the I Promise School is not a charter school.
In recent years, many social entrepreneurs and private donors (including athletes and entertainers) interested in urban education have worked through cities’ charter-school movements instead of traditional school districts. They reasoned—rightly—that the freedoms afforded by chartering facilitate success. Under a strong charter law, a nonprofit-operated public school can enjoy flexibility with academic calendars, schedules, curricula, hiring, firing, purchasing, and more. Schools controlled by a district typically face an array of constraining rules, contracts, and practices that are a consequence of being embedded in a government monopoly.
I Promise is part of the Akron Public Schools district. This has produced glowing stories and sidestepped the political battles that can dog the early days of new charter schools. So far, the relationship appears totally collaborative. The school board, the district’s administration, James’s foundation, and other partners seem to be one happy team. But if history is any guide, this era of good feelings will eventually come to an end and a promising new school could be the one to suffer.
The district is ultimately responsible for, and therefore in control of, the I Promise School. Problems at the school could cause the district to intervene in a way the school’s leadership resents. A change of the district superintendent or in the school-board membership could alter the tenor of the partnership. A change in the local teachers’ union leadership could lead to a renegotiation of its agreement with the school. A budget crisis could reallocate scarce resources to other district schools. Public protests could cause the district to change the rules for who can attend the school. A new district personnel policy could change the school’s hiring process.
It’s impossible to forecast which of these events—or one of countless others—will materialize. But there are numerous caution flags in the school’s plans, from provisions in the union’s memorandum of understanding on the school (what if the union later decides it wants significantly higher teacher salaries at the school or wants to revert to a more standard schedule?) to where the school will be permanently housed, its ultimate size, and the board’s approval process for the receipt of private dollars. The reason so many prospective school founders choose the charter route is that they want to avoid exactly these types of potential problems and have a guarantee of operational freedom.
So why choose to make this school part of the district? We can’t know the calculus of all of the various actors in this case. But a number of factors probably came into play. James and his philanthropic team doubtless have some personal affinity for the city’s traditional school system. They also likely preferred averting accusations of destabilizing the district, jeopardizing teachers’ jobs, or “privatizing” public education. Perhaps they embraced the view that a public school is only truly public if it is completely operated by government officials and governed by a democratically elected board.
But broader political issues might have also played a role. In recent years, charters have come under increasing attack, and some polls have shown softening public support. This might have been exacerbated, though it is hard to tell, by charters’ association with the politically polarizing Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump (who, not incidentally, grotesquely insulted James’s intelligence recently on Twitter). Though this is a national phenomenon, Ohio’s charter-school sector has been particularly rife with controversy. A number of policy flaws and low-performing operators led to poor outcomes and various scandals in Ohio’s first charters. So serious was the fallout that members of Ohio’s congressional delegation questioned the federal government’s awarding of major grants for charter schools in the state. The state passed legislation to address such issues in 2015, but the political consequences linger.
It was sensible politically for James to establish the I Promise School inside the Akron district instead of as a charter. But experience suggests that this could prove penny wise and pound foolish. James earned those pennies, and he’s admirably aiming to do a public service, so we should respect his decision.
But we should all keep in mind that low-income kids only get one shot at early education. Just as James has moved city to city after making shrewd calculations about where he had the best chance to win a championship, we should be similarly tough-minded about the conditions likeliest to enable a school to help disadvantaged boys and girls succeed.