Will LeBron’s investment in district schools be any different?

By Aaron Rice
August 20, 2018

Sending piles of extra money to district schools, either via taxpayers or celebrities, has not produced the outcomes we’re continually promised. Real reform comes from a fresh start.

While LeBron James is and will continue to be recognized as one of the great basketball players of all time, he has also worked tirelessly to become the sports hero of the left. He constantly receives fawning praise from the media, and the few who dare to second-guess him are instantly branded racists.

Ohioans love what James does on the basketball court. His politics? Not so much. In 2016, James took to the campaign trail to stump for Hillary Clinton. She went on to lose the Buckeye state by nine points. Donald Trump accumulated a larger percentage of the vote in Ohio than Barack Obama, George W. Bush, or Bill Clinton ever did in winning it.

As James left for Los Angeles to play basketball for the Lakers, as a parting gift of sorts and to much fanfare he announced the opening a new school for at-risk students in Akron, Ohio. If you only read the press clippings or watched ESPN, you would assume James was paying for the entire I Promise school and its reoccurring costs. This would not be unheard of for wealthy individuals or their foundations.

However, it is a public school, and Ohio taxpayers are footing most of the bill. James and his foundation are spending about $2 million in the school’s first year, and would spend $2 million or more a year as the school grows. But the public school district is still paying more than half the costs, perhaps up to 75 percent. This is all to be determined.

The district owns the building. The district pays for teachers and administrators. The students ride district buses. The district will cover these expenses by shifting students, teachers, and money from other district schools.

Don’t get me wrong, James is doing an honorable thing, but as a percentage of his net worth or annual income, this is the equivalent of the average person making a $500 annual donation to the local church. The important question to consider is: what changes will occur as a result of this outlay?

Can Public Schools Improve Themselves?

Beyond the issue of who is paying, I Promise has no incentive to innovate or be any different than other district schools. The kids will get bikes, and some other perks such as paid college tuition. The school will be operated by the same district it was previously. Union contracts are the same, meaning employment and financial flexibility will still be lacking. The kids will just be in a newly refurbished building.

We’ve seen celebrities dump large amounts of cash into public schools before, with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Newark, New Jersey as the most recent example. The results? Not so good. The problem?

“Zuckerberg envisioned the teacher contract reform to be a centerpiece of the reform and contributed $50 million — half of his total donation — to go to working on that cause. Zuckerberg wanted to be able to create more flexibility in teacher contracts to reward high-performing teachers and to fire teachers with poor records of student achievement. Those types of protections are determined by New Jersey law, and Zuckerberg couldn’t simply come in and change the rules without going through the state legislature to make the changes,” Business Insider reported.

The New Jersey legislature agreed on some new accountability measures for teacher contracts, but only if seniority protections remained. Seniority rules that require hiring and firing teachers not based on a school’s need for their skills or the teacher’s quality are one of the key barriers to improving public schools.

Billionaires Often Aren’t Very Good at Fixing Schools

This story has been told before. In 1993, philanthropist Walter Annenberg wanted to improve education by spending $500 million on public schools. With matching grants, that total ballooned to $1.1 billion. What was the outcome?

According to an assessment from the Consortium on Chicago School Research, “Findings from large-scale survey analyses, longitudinal field research, and student achievement test score analyses reveal that…there is little evidence of an overall Annenberg school improvement effect.” Essentially, the schools that received Annenberg’s money did no better than peers that did not.

Again, the policies that stifle innovation and progress don’t disappear because a famous person makes a charitable donation. Often, rich people hire advisors from the same system they’re hoping to reform, rather than people with a proven record of benefiting students. After all, spending more money on education is something we taxpayers have been doing for some time. Just look at this chart:

Since 1970, much to the chagrin of those who constantly complain about how much we spend on education, education spending has tripled (adjusted for inflation), while math and reading scores have remained virtually unchanged. In my home state of Mississippi, the increase is closer to “only” 150 percent, which is still not insignificant. The bottom line on test scores, however, follows national trends. Sending piles of extra money to district schools, either via taxpayers or celebrities, has not produced the outcomes anyone would like to see.

Successful Philanthropists Started Fresh

That is because district schools have stubbornly refused to change and been slow to adapt. We have seen educational entrepreneurs and businessmen become heavily involved in the charter and private school markets, rather than in public school reform, with much success. In New York City, Success Academy Charter Schools are showing that every child can thrive if they are in the right environment.

“Of the New York City charter network’s 5,800 students who took a standardized test, 95 percent passed the math test and 84 percent passed reading. As a comparison, 41 percent of New York City’s public school students passed the reading test and 38 percent passed the math test. This achievement comes from a charter school student group made up of 95 percent children of color and whose families have a median income of $32,000. The five-highest performing districts in New York’s public schools have less than 10 percent students of color and family median incomes ranging from $130,000 to $290,000, according to a Success Academy analysis,” education site The 74 notes.

The amazing results continue for students with special needs and who are homeless. Despite the criticisms that any large charter network receives, the network had 17,000 applications for just 3,000 open seats last year. Politics aside, parents just want what is best for their children.

In 2007, North Carolina businessman Bob Luddy opened Thales Academy to provide students a classical education at about half the price of area private schools, or around $6,000 per student. Luddy, who made his fortune as the owner of CaptiveAire, the nation’s leading manufacturer of commercial kitchen ventilation systems, operates Thales like a business.

His schools cost about half of what district schools spend to build. They don’t have auditoriums because those are too expensive to maintain. They save on personnel. Class sizes are larger, demonstrating their efficiency the way a business strives to create more products with fewer employees.

And it’s working. Today, one school has turned into six, with 25 Thales schools in planning stages in Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida. “In business we look at outcomes, did we gain sales, did we please our customers? Schools don’t look at it this way. We have a big building. We have sports. They’re all inputs,” Luddy says. Luddy is slowly working to change that, and he’s seeing a significant success with this innovative approach.

Innovation in Mississippi

In my home state, Cena Holifield had a vision to educate students with dyslexia. So she built a school that provides comprehensive dyslexia therapy for young students, and she did so at a time when most district schools did not, certainly not at the level you can receive at the 3-D School.

Parents from all over Mississippi, and even neighboring states, choose the 3-D School, even if it means breaking up their family for a few years. Because of the demand, the school now has two campuses, the original location near Hattiesburg and one on the coast in Ocean Springs.

T. Mac Howard had the vision of providing at-risk students in the Mississippi Delta with a high-quality education, which is very hard to come by for those without the financial resources. After beginning with an after-school program, he founded Delta Streets Academy, and today boys in Greenwood who otherwise would not have this option can now receive a great education at a minimal cost thanks to Howard’s vision and generous investors.

Those who become involved in education do so for noble reasons. Time will tell if James’ entrance into education is any different than that of other big givers who have spent heavily on district schools. For students and taxpayers in Akron, let’s hope it does. But the evidence makes it look like a very long shot.

This column appeared in the The Federalist on August 20, 2018. 


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