“We don’t deserve LeBron James.” This has been the drumbeat, steadily repeated on social media, ever since the greatest basketball player on earth opened a new public school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, called I Promise. The school, which serves 240 at-risk third- and fourth-graders, is a sight to behold. It stands as a breathtaking piece of architecture, sending an immediate message to the children about their worth from the moment they step through the doors. In addition to meals, job training for parents, and even a bicycle and helmet for every student, the school offers guaranteed college tuition for everyone who goes on to graduate high school.
All credit to LeBron James, who just adds to his résumé as someone—much to the chagrin of Laura Ingraham and her Fox News acolytes—who will never just “shut up and dribble.” As James said to ESPN about his school, “We want to create an environment of family and not like a workplace. Sometimes you can get tired if you look at it like work—you kind of get tired of it. We want to create an environment of family where you want to always be around your family. No matter the good and the bad, you always want to be around that support system.”
The praise he is receiving is more than deserved. That the school is public and not a charter is also special and demands particular attention. I spoke to Jesse Hagopian, activist Seattle public-school teacher and co-author of the book Teaching for Black Lives. He said, “Corporate education reformers have claimed that charter schools—taking public funds for privately run schools—are the only way to bring innovation to education. With his ‘I Promise’ public school, LeBron has shook that idea like so many opponents on his way to the rack. By partnering with the Akron Public Schools—not trying to subvert them or profit off of them with an unaccountable charter—LeBron has demonstrated to the world the power of truly investing in public education.”
While going on a media tour to promote the school, James has taken the opportunity to challenge Trump’s racism, telling CNN, “He’s kinda used sport to kinda divide us. And that’s something that I can’t relate to because I know that sport was the first time I was ever around someone white.”
He also said that Trump has emboldened racists. “The president in charge now has given people… they don’t care now―they throw it in your face now.” When asked what he would say to Trump if he was sitting across the table from him, James just said, “I would never sit across from him.”
It’s true, we maybe don’t deserve LeBron James in our cultural life. At the same time, it is vital that we don’t fall in love with the idea that the wealthy philanthropist, no matter how exemplary, is going to fix the crisis of public education in this country. James, one of the the most powerful and wealthy athletes on earth, just put his heart and soul into building this school, and its reach is still 240 children in Akron. In Baltimore, thousands of young people freeze in their schools’ dilapidated buildings during the winter and face unbearable heat over the summer. As Aaron Maybin, former NFL player and current Baltimore art teacher, said last winter, “How would your kids concentrate if you sent them to school in a refrigerator for eight hours? With failing lighting. Two classes in one room? We tried our best as educators. They tried their best as scholars. But they are dealing with a lot already. And now they are supposed to learn in the dark and in the cold.”
The solution does not lie in Baltimore’s own Carmelo Anthony building a school. It lies in agitation against Trump, Betsy DeVos, and their marauding agenda of for-profit schooling. It lies in remembering the all-too-true slogan that a teacher’s working conditions are a child’s learning conditions. It lies in enacting a Marshall Plan for public education that lowers class sizes and builds new facilities so every child can have that look of beautiful hope on their faces that the children of I Promise showed the world this very week. LeBron has shown that he will not donate funds without also speaking his mind. Those of us without the resources but also with something to say need to walk in his footsteps.