Basketball superstar LeBron James has a vision of what a public school should be. And in his hometown, Akron, Ohio, there was nothing that resembled what he envisioned. Instead of complaining, lobbying, or nagging Congress “to do something,” he used his name and influence to get the Akron school district to help him create the public school of his dreams — one that helps kids like himself, the son of a teen mother who went through great hardship to raise him.
Unlike Tennis star Andre Agassi, Sean “Diddy” Combs, Pitbull, Jalen Rose, and others who opened charter or private schools, James took on the task of bringing his vision to reality by persuading the school district to go along with his plan.
Before him, other celebrities chose to have the freedom to dictate how the schools should operate and pick who would run them by moving away from traditional schools. But James was given unprecedented freedom with I Promise School, even though taxpayers are footing about 75 percent of the bill. Still, the school is not his. And the staff is not picked by him: I Promise School is an Akron school district facility. And while it will take about 120 students per grade who are behind their peers in classwork, that’s just one quarter of the district’s at-risk students.
So why did so many people cheer when James announced his plan?
With so many athletes and even music stars like Chance the Rapper working so hard to elevate the public school system through private efforts, wouldn’t it be clear to the public that private enterprise, not the government, is what gets things moving?
What Governments Can’t Conceive, Private Hands Can Build
Whether James’ school takes off and becomes an example among other public schools in the nation remains to be seen. The buzz alone created by his announcement shows just how far a private figure can go.
Thanks to his involvement, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to assume that at-risk students picked to attend I Promise School will go above and beyond to excel beyond everyone’s imagination. But could the Akron school district have pulled that feat on its own?
The short answer is “no.” And that’s because the public school system has been failing students for decades. It took the initiative of a private and famous individual to get this school project off the ground.
If what matters is boosting traditional schooling and making it a priority, then why would the public rely so heavily on figures like Chance and James to help better the system? Clearly, what matters here isn’t people’s good intentions when it comes to supporting public education, but whether the government can deliver in an area only the private market can.
Still, the private option continues to be widely accused of helping undermine public education, prompting us to ask ourselves if the irony of this accusation is lost on private education critics.