Despite LeBron’s admirable efforts, most black millionaires can’t save public education
To improve America’s public schools, we need community-based decision-making, redistributed wealth and better leadership
LeBron James has partnered with Akron Public Schools in Ohio to open I Promise, a beautiful new $8 million public elementary school in his hometown. James is one of the most prominent athletes in the world and he has repeatedly used this platform to speak out in support of underserved communities and social justice causes.
He explicitly stated that the founding of the school is the greatest achievement of his career — one that also includes multiple NBA championships and individual accolades. James and the school deserve all of the praise that they have received. However, as admirable as James’ philanthropic efforts are, they are not a solution to the problems in public education.
The public praise and excitement over the opening of I Promise are also a testament to the erosion of our society’s collective commitment to public education and public institutions generally. Over the course of the past 30 years, a new bipartisan common sense has emerged about public education. This common sense presumes that corporate reorganization, public-private partnerships, charitable donations and philanthropy can provide what should be a guaranteed public good: public education.
This policy turn promoting privatization, the proliferation of charter schools, school voucher programs and reforms based on “choice” has contributed to the social dislocation of black students, black educators and black neighborhoods — particularly in Ohio. In their study Closed By Choice, researchers found that the growth of privately managed charter schools in Chicago contributed to the mass closure of public schools in black neighborhoods, “education insecurity,” “fiscal stress” on the entire district, and “the widespread denigration of public education.” While James’ school is not a charter school or a private school accepting vouchers, his involvement still suggests that private wealth is necessary to create quality public education.
The personal-origins story that James credits with inspiring the opening of the school really is an indictment of the ravages of racism and capitalism that created prolonged urban crises for African-Americans in cities such as Akron. Families who settled in Akron and other Rust Belt cities for decent-paying jobs in the industrial economy were devastated when these same jobs evaporated with the onset of deindustrialization. James credits teachers, mentors and family with helping him to find his way. However, structural factors beyond personal relationships created the conditions that led James to miss 83 days of school in the fourth grade. His family did not have secure housing, adequate employment or sufficient public transportation to get him to school. His phenomenal talent as a basketball player provided him with a lane out of these conditions, a lane not available to so many other children.
Black educational organizers have long argued for the very type of education that James’ I Promise school will provide. Besides an accelerated curriculum, the I Promise school will offer daily meals, robust after-school programming, a food pantry, educational classes for parents, and mental and physical health services for students and their families. In the 1960s and 1970s, responding to painfully similar social conditions nationally, black students, parents and educators called for community control of their schools to provide a comparable suite of wraparound services in schools. More recently, organizers in groups such as the national Journey for Justice Alliance and Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools have pursued these ends through campaigns for sustainable community schools.
A lack of adequate funding, among other issues, distinguishes these efforts from I Promise. The reliance on philanthropy to sustain public institutions in our New Gilded Age of inequality is not sustainable. African-Americans have pooled resources to found public schools since the 19th century. More recently, several of James’ wealthy former NBA peers, including David Robinson and Jalen Rose, founded parochial and charter schools to serve predominantly low-income students of color. But there are not enough black millionaires to buy our way out of the problems of racial and economic inequality that caused James to miss more than a third of the school year in fourth grade or want to open up a school so many years later.
Besides more funding, the community-control movements of yesteryear and today’s sustainable community schools efforts also involved students, parents, teachers and those most directly affected by education policies in school decision-making. As amazing as I Promise is, America requires a fundamental reordering of our funding priorities, a structure that redistributes wealth and decision-making to the most vulnerable among us and to our public institutions for more students to reap these benefits.