It's Prime Time for school choice advocates to stand up to hucksters (and for accountability)

As a huge fan of both school choice and the NFL, I love the idea of a major star leading a great school and becoming a voice for school reform. Successful athletes who take time to give back, work with young athletes, and ensure kids get a great education should be commended, right? 

But a recent New York Times article digging into Deion Sanders’ two schools in the Dallas-Fort Worth area should be enough to make any education-reform advocate’s skin crawl. Both his elementary school and high school were among the 9 percent of all Texas schools to receive the lowest rating from the state: “improvement required.” But according to the Times, the problems go much deeper, and many of them have to do with Deion himself.

For one thing, local and national coverage has described an obsessive focus on athletics, resulting Prime Prep securing top talent. There’s nothing wrong with that by itself, as—for better or worse—schools everywhere have long been accused of going out of their way to recruit top athletes. Yet when Prime Prep was accused of violating state athletic association rules, the Times reports, “Prime Prep founders announced that they would pull out of the University Interscholastic League. That did not please the school’s teachers. The withdrawal meant the school could not field a debate team, a choir, a band.” Now they play teams from other states or, just Thursday, a team from Mexico (at the $1.3 billion AT&T Stadium, naturally).

Prime Prep has also been in the news lately for its founder’s propensity for outlandish and sometimes violent actions and threats. The whole Times piece is filled with plenty of disturbing details, but suffice it to say that Sanders has been fired multiple times, only to be rehired by his loyal board. One rehire came after he physically attacked another school official—because, after all, it was “just a misdemeanor.”

In his playing days, Sanders had an uncanny knack for locating the ball, but today his schools seem to have a similar ability to attract controversy. They’ve been criticized for not even having a curriculum plan in their charter application and are under investigation for potential misuse of school lunch funds (they supposedly used them to feed kids at Deion’s for-profit summer camps), for failing to fingerprint and properly background-check employees, for “losing” lots of computer equipment, and much more. So how did they get a charter in the first place? Just ask Deion. The Dallas Observer, which has been doggedly pursuing the story, obtained audio of a meeting in which the former football star and current NFL Network commentator (who once did a Pizza Hut commercial joking about how many millions Jerry Jones would pay him) was demanding a raise:

“You don’t even really know how we got this school in Austin, you don’t really know, so let me tell you,” Sanders tells [school co-founder D.L.] Wallace in the recordings. “It ain’t because all these inflated words and wonderful things we said, it was another way.” Sanders lectures Wallace on the school’s origins, reminding him how Sanders’ own celebrity, and apparently special treatment from politicians in Austin, helped close the deal.

“Senators, political leaders that you hooked me up with, that you put me down with. That’s how we got the school.”

Last month, the Texas Education Agency announced it would move to close Prime Prep and hopefully put an end to this saga. But the school has announced its intention to appeal, which could take months. In the meantime, school leaders are looking to find cash to pay bills, and the students are caught in limbo with a potential closure hanging over their heads.

Schools started by famous athletes are going to get intense attention and scrutiny, and naturally, some will not work out (though some certainly will—and both Jalen Rose and Andre Agassi have garnered praise for their efforts to open schools, while Agassi has also set up a facilities fund to serve other charters). Thankfully, charters can and should be closed if they don’t perform. Unfortunately, many low-performing schools in the traditional public, charter, and private sectors remain open without sufficient scrutiny. Sanders’ schools almost certainly never should have been opened in the first place.

Today, there are simply not enough seats in great schools to serve all children; it’s vital that education reformers continue to promote school-choice policies that allow for innovation, followed up by replication of what works. But the Prime Prep schools in Texas should serve as a cautionary tale to policymakers. There will always be parents who want to send their children to a school that boasts the active involvement of a celebrity. But some in-demand schools are not serving students well, which is yet another reminder of the need to couple choice with strong accountability for all schools, even those run by former Cowboys.