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What LeBron Can Prove About Public Education

The basketball star's new school in Ohio embraces a promising model for helping at-risk communities.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

“I promise to these younger kids and younger generation that I’ll continue to be a role model to them and I’ll continue to lead by example,” LeBron James said in 2013. James kept his promise.

Last week, the basketball star opened the I Promise School in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. A joint project of James’s foundation and the local school district, the school differs from other celebrity forays into education in key ways. Notably, it isn’t a charter school, which would be privately run. Instead, I Promise is a public school under the jurisdiction of the Akron school district, so it’s subject to the same regulation and oversight of all public schools. And as Education Week reported, I Promise shares DNA with the community school model, which envision schools as centers where community members can receive wraparound social services in addition to a K-12 education.

By eschewing the charter model, James not only avoids what many critics consider to be the privatization of education; he may also shore up the school system’s ability to address, rather than aggravate, existing inequalities. I Promise deliberately chose, via lottery, students with records of truancy or disciplinary problems, and will provide psychological counseling to both students and teachers.

Charter schools, by contrast, often enforce draconian conduct codes and can be quick to expel students. A 2015 investigation by The New York Times found that some administrators at Success Academy, a prestigious charter network in New York City, “singled out children they would like to see leave.” In April, NPR reported that Chicago’s Noble charter schools enforced such a strict disciplinary code that teenage girls regularly bled through their pants because their schools did not allot them enough time to use the bathroom.

Some charter schools, like the Harlem Children Zone’s Promise academies, provide wraparound social services that resemble those on offer at I Promise. But even at Promise academies, results are mixed. A 2014 study published by the Abdul Lateef Jamil Poverty Action Lab showed that students who won a lottery to attend a Promise school were more likely to finish high school, but Promise attendance didn’t correlate to improved mental and physical health, or to lower reported rates of drug and alcohol use. Charters also have variable academic outcomes overall, and they don’t reliably outperform public schools on average.

I Promise isn’t a typical public school, though. The school will employ 43 staffers for classes of 20 students each, a ratio lower than the city’s reported average of 23 elementary school children per teacher. It will also provide additional services for the at-risk elementary school students it serves: It will provide free bikes and laptops for students, run a food pantry for school families, offer GED classes and job search assistance for parents, and pay for students to eventually attend the University of Akron.

James isn’t the first wealthy person to try to shape public education by funding extra services. Sarah Reckhow, a professor of political science at Michigan State University and the author of Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics, cited Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff. “He has given hugely to the San Francisco public schools as well as other public schools in the Bay Area, and has had a pretty dramatic impact,” she told me. “The Mark Zuckerberg grants to Newark involved quite a bit of money to the traditional public schools.”

Zuckerberg’s $100 million grant, announced in 2010 on an episode of Oprah with then-Newark mayor Cory Booker, and later matched by another $100 million in donations, did reshape public education in Newark. The state of New Jersey, which had controlled Newark city schools since 1995 due to underperformance, closed 14 struggling public schools and laid off hundreds of teachers. The New Yorker’s Dale Russakoff reported in 2015 that $20 million of the funds went to consulting firms. A recent study (funded by the Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation) found more positive academic gains in English for Newark students at charter schools whose enrollments increased after the grant; but it didn’t examine social or health outcomes.

Benioff and Zuckerberg are both part of a wave of Silicon Valley billionaires funneling money to traditional public schools, but according to a 2017 story in The New York Times, they face limited oversight, and there’s little research to test the efficacy of the “innovations” they fund. “They have the power to change policy, but no corresponding check on that power,” Megan Tompkins-Stange, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, told the Times. “It does subvert the democratic process.” School district control doesn’t necessarily guarantee that officials will rigorously oversee large donations.

But if I Promise sticks close to the community school model, and Akron school officials apply the same level of oversight they’d apply to any other public school, the school could be a boon to struggling students. Community schools, which partner with non-profits, churches, and local agencies, often provide health care and adult literacy services in addition to traditional academic offerings. While charter schools can operate a community school model, as the Harlem Children Zone’s charters try to do, the Coalition for Community Schools says on its website that most community schools are public. New York City currently operates 215 community schools, and it isn’t alone. There are publicly run community schools in Oakland, Chicago, and Boston. And though the specifics of the community school model vary from school system to school system, there is a consistent emphasis on providing additional social services for students and parents.

“Just looking at what is online and what’s been reported in the press so far, it is striking how simple it is to build a school like I Promise, at least on paper, and it’s a little startling that we don’t have more,” said Donna Harris-Aikens, who directs the education policy and practice department at the National Education Association. Harris-Aikens credited James and his foundation for beginning first with programming—the I Promise network provides mentorship and extracurricular opportunities for Akron children—before trying to start a school.

Speaking of the traits I Promise shares with community schools, Harris-Aikens added, “I think one of the things that becomes very clear, and not just with community schools but with any strategy that supports public schools, is that it’s about the kids. Start with what the kids have and what the school can do as a part of that community to make sure that they graduate ready for the next stage of their lives. It can be done. It’s a proven model in schools.”

There is some evidence to support the community school model. A 2017 brief produced by the Learning Policy Institute and the National Education Policy Center attributed positive results to schools that incorporate what analysts called the “four pillars” of the model: wraparound social services, expanded learning time, family engagement, and collaborative efforts with community institutions. “By the third and fourth years, students at fully implemented community schools scored significantly higher than their peers in other schools on standardized math and reading tests,” analysts said of the Tulsa Area Community Schools Initiative in the Oklahoma city.

A 2016 Brookings paper asserted that while there are benefits to the community school model, community schools tend to face significant challenges when the services they provide intersect with other sites of social inequality. School funding still often depends on zip code, which reinforces inequality. Community schools can struggle to fund their services over time. Most public schools don’t have celebrity athletes committed to their welfare after all, and the pitfalls of Silicon Valley’s educational philanthropy show that wealthy patrons aren’t always a net benefit to schools in any case. If I Promise succeeds, James won’t just show why schools should be community centers; he may convince public-education skeptics that if you want good schools, you have to pay for them.