Schools shouldn’t be a commodity

School is back in session, along with all the promises and perils that go with it.

The news last month rightly trumpeted the generosity of basketball star LeBron James. James announced he was fully funding a public school for “at-risk” kids in his hometown of Akron, Ohio — an “I Promise School.”

It’s hard to characterize the school as a traditional neighborhood school or a charter school as it seems somewhat a hybrid. But all children will have everything they need to succeed: books, bikes, uniforms, mentors, nutrition and the promise of tuition-free college at the University of Akron after high school graduation. GED classes and job placement will be available to their parents, too. 

To James’s credit, he did not start a private school; he worked with the Akron public school district to devise the plan.

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Wonderful. Now, these questions come to my mind as a religious person: Why should it take private philanthropy to create all the conditions for successful public education? Are not all children equally worthy of a quality education? 

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We have never seriously committed ourselves to providing a public education system that would give equal opportunity to all students to learn and achieve. Race is part of the reason. When we were forced by the courts to desegregate public schools, we never fully integrated them. Then whites fled for the suburbs so we could segregate by economic choice, supported by redlining housing policies that kept blacks from coming into the neighborhood.

Nowadays, we are doubling down on the dumbing down strategy by starving public schools of adequate state funding; arguing for private school voucher programs, which would cherry-pick minority children as trophies to prove the success of the model; and blaming those who are left in the under-resourced neighborhood schools for their moral failure in achievement.

The narrative of futility is changing, however. Dallas Independent School District is a model of innovation among urban districts. It’s doing a lot with a little. (And unless the state school funding system is changed in the next legislative session, they will be doing with a lot less due to the “Robin Hood” recapture system.)

LeBron James’s “I Promise School” plan not only provides quality teachers and administrators (all of whom were willing to work for less to get to work in this fully resourced environment), but it also provides the wraparound services necessary to produce the best chance of excellent outcomes. We have it backwards in most school districts: Wealthy schools that are filled with predominantly white students who come from successful families across generations are the best resourced; those schools that need the most help to compensate for generations that were either denied access to quality education or provided substandard education are the least resourced. 

What outcomes should we expect from this strategy? Is it spiritually defensible for religious people to treat education as a commodity that some can afford more than others?

James’s gift has given some children palpable hope for their future. Every child deserves the same.