LeBron James to start a new school in Akron, but it’s not a charter

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When news broke the other day that LeBron James was starting a school in his home town of Akron, some commentators assumed it was going to be a charter. That’s an understandable mistake, as celebrities and stars of all stripes have gotten in chartering in recent years, from Andre Agassi to P. Diddy to Pitbull and beyond. And why not, given that in most places, the charter model comes with huge advantages for philanthropists wanting to make a difference, among them the freedom from district red tape and teacher union contracts.

LeBron chose to create his school in partnership with the traditional public school district, as a non-charter—likely due to his long-standing relationship with Akron City Schools. There’s no way to know whether he considered the charter route. But if he had, he’d have discovered a challenging charter school terrain suffering from the double whammy of recovering from a long-held poor reputation and inhospitable policies for education entrepreneurs.

First of all, kudos to LeBron, whose efforts to help struggling youth and his partnerships in Akron are nothing new. You can read more about the school plans here, but the gist is that the program will start off by identifying third graders who are already behind academically. Given what we know about third-grade reading proficiency predicting future academic and life chances, this is a sensible start for the program—which will grow downward to grades one and two and then up to grade eight by 2022. The school will focus on STEM and offer “hands-on, problem-based learning” while engaging families. Six out of ten of third-grade students in Akron fail to reach proficiency in reading, so there’s a clear need for the program.

LeBron’s vision for the I Promise School sounds similar to those of successful charter school founders. And the school will presumably serve a similar student population—those who are behind academically and disproportionately low-income. While the school won’t have the autonomy that most charter schools have, it also won’t be forced to navigate Ohio’s increasingly challenged charter landscape.

Charter schools, on average, receive one-third less funding than traditional public schools and cannot access local tax revenues (except for a few instances in Cleveland). They also lack facilities resources. A study released in January showed that Ohio charters are forced to dip into operations funding to pay for facilities; on average, about $800 per pupil of their already meager foundation funding goes toward building costs. Federal start-up dollars that used to provide a vital infusion of start-up capital are now so hard to attain that King James himself would probably find it easier to take down the Golden State Warriors again—no small task—than to access those dollars. Last week, the state announced eligibility criteria for the new round of federal Charter School Program grants. It’s early still, but from what I can tell, even Ohio’s very best charter networks may struggle to qualify to earn a CSP grant to replicate. For brand new schools, it may be easier to access the money, but you can count on one hand the number of sponsors that are eligible to authorize new schools this coming fall.

Ohio’s overall charter school reboot was a necessary development, and Fordham played an active role in advocating for many of HB 2’s reforms. But we should be gravely concerned if the overall charter climate—in terms of both regulation and resource availability—becomes so burdensome that education entrepreneurs have a hard time starting new charter schools. While Ohio’s charter landscape is shaking off its reputation as the Wild, Wild West, there still must be space—and support—for good charters to replicate and innovative new models to take hold.

Best wishes to LeBron in his endeavor, and to his overall partnership in Akron where historical performance data show there is tremendous need. I’m agnostic to school type: if innovation can spring up within traditional public school districts and deliver results for at-risk kids, then more power to them. At the same time, we must remain vigilant against over-regulation and wary of any climate wherein starting up a new charter school is about as likely as making a half-court buzzer beater. 

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is a Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. She works with a coalition of high-performing Ohio charter school networks, facilitating their advocacy efforts and providing research and technical assistance.