From the start, before I say anything else, I want you to look at the school report card for the Akron Public Schools:


That’s an unacceptable picture.

I put your attention there at the outset to avoid the problem endemic to education writing, which is, to put it politely, focusing on every goddamned thing except the one goal of education: student achievement.

Now, as an aside, I’d like to point your attention to a brilliant “roasted” routine Adam Sandburg did at Comedy Central’s roast of actor James Franco.

He starts by saying something adorably harmless about his colleagues and then dramatically punctuates the non-insult by yelling “roasted!!!”

It kills (see for yourself).

I mention that routine because last week I felt like a victim of Sandburg’s non-wrath when Twitter’s anti-school reform voices suggested school reformers were wearing facial egg because “King” LeBron James’ celebrated new school opened in Akron, Ohio as a “traditional” public school rather than a charter.

Frankly, I didn’t get the joke.

Why would charter school supporters feel rebuffed by a new school opening in a city that desperately needs new schools?

Diane Ravitch and her digital accessories told us. I guess reform robots are such one-dimensional creatures that we expect every new school to be a charter.

“I salute LeBron James for investing his funding in a public school, not a charter school,” Ravich crowed.

That’s a tired language trick intended to frame charters as unpublic. It’s an intentional mark of dishonesty. As she said years ago: “charter schools are public schools.”

She continued:

Mr. James understands that the overwhelming preponderance of children in this country attend public schools, and we have a responsibility to make them work for all children. Charter schools and vouchers are an escape from the central problem, not an answer. He is way smarter than Donald Trump or Betsy DeVos or John Kasich or Jeb Bush or Rick Snyder or Rick Scott or Donald Trump or Reed Hastings or Eli Broad or any of the other billionaire builders of escape hatches that lead nowhere.

As has been the case at least since 2003 or so, Ravitch’s claims achieve a remarkable feat of being at once sharp and doltish.

First, of the millions of parents with kids in charter schools, how many do have connections to Donald Trump, Betsy DeVoss, or Reed Hastings?

Enough to dismiss the popularity and demand of charter schools to plutocracy?

Second, Ravitch’s claim that “the overwhelming preponderance of children in this country attend public schools” is a harefooted misdirection so stealthy that it’s a lie.

In reality, our children enter districts, schools, and programs so different from each other we’d be reckless to pretend there is a uniform system of education for all.

The pretense that the white child of doctors attends the same public education system as the black child of fast food janitors is only bested by pretending Taco Bell customers are foodies. The difference between white and black children is the latter can never make a run for the border.

Finally, Ravitch says that James is showing us what we all know, which is that extra resources will make public schools their best.

Compare that to her response when Linda Darling-Hammond’s school (a charter school!) in Palo Alto went bust even though it had tons of extra resources, additional services for students, and the world-class power of Stanford University behind it.

In that instance, Ravitch said, “Maybe this demonstrates that schools alone cannot solve the very deep problems kids bring to school.”

Essentially, even with resources, expect failure.

The kids are that jacked up.

Following Ravitch’s lead, Seattle teacher Jesse Hagopian told in The Nation “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.”

Not to be left behind, Nikole Hannah-Jones, proving once again she is more activist than journalist, restates Ravitch’s glee:

Ida Bae Wells@nhannahjones

I cannot say how impressed I am that the school @kingjames is opening today to serve low-performing students is a traditional public school. Instead of taking resources from the Akron Public Schools, he is adding to them. This is doing the work. Bravo. 

LeBron James to open I Promise School on Monday

James continues to show his unbelievable commitment to the community.

Reading that made me think, like Donald Trump, Ravitch makes people betray their publicly declared beliefs as a cost of maintaining membership in her big union tent.

If Hannah-Jones’ well-documented love for her no-mercy version of public school integration was indubitable she would point out the probability that I Promise will be segregated by race AND class.

Further, she damages two of her most identifiable public opinions when she applauds James for “not extracting resources from public schools that most black kids in the city attend.”

1) her support for metro-wide integration plans have in the past – and will in the future – extract resources from black school districts and schools by dispersing their students and teachers, and closing black schools like the one James has started; and

2) she has said there is no amount of resources that can make separate or equal.

If I Promise were a legit charter school she’d soak it in endless New York Times ink, and like the walking dead, her readership would follow suit.

A non-charter charter

We shouldn’t care if I Promise is a charter or not. If it has autonomy of staffing, budget, and program it fulfills much of what school reform strives to achieve.

That said, let’s not pretend I Promise is a “traditional” public school. It isn’t. Judge against a rubricdeveloped by the Center for Reinventing Public Education – a pro-reform group that neither Ravitch, Haggopian, nor Hannah-Jones would never support – and the school looks like an autonomous school, similar to attempts to develop charter-like schools in other districts.

Years ago Ravitch said warned that “defenders of the status quo” use “charter-like schools to fend off demands for real charter schools.” Today she supports one of these types of schools to do precisely of what she accused others of doing in the past.

All of it smells desperate and self-deluding.

Regardless of what you call I Promise, anti-charter advocates will have to cede at least four uncomfortable points that usually embolden their rhetoric about privatization, “corporate reform,” and the supposed selectivity of charter schools.

The I Promise school…

1) Embraces foundation support – The school was cooked up in James’ private family foundation and the school’s principal was installed from LeBron’s foundation board.

2) Embraces corporate citizenship –  Among the 120 external supporters of I Promise are corporate partners like J.P. Morgan Chase. James’ foundation website actually calls Morgan Chase something more intimate than a “partner,” saying “The only word to capture the spirit and impact of the partnership is a word we typically reserve for our closest relatives and friends: family.”

3) Takes from some and gives to others – Refuting Hannah-Jones’ claim that unlike charter schools that draw funds away from the schools most of Akron’s black students attend, the Akron Public Schools district is shifting $2.9 million from its general fund to subsidize I Promise’s launch and programmatic bells and whistles.

4) Is not open to all – I Promise literally chose its students in a process that isn’t transparent nor open for public scrutiny. District officials and foundation staff looked at student achievement rates, identified students they determined would get the most out of the school, picked which parents to invite in, and called to make the invitation for 240 students. Parents had to sign a commitment letter and attend an orientation.

Man, if this is school reformers getting roasted, I’ll take it.

Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of Education Post, a media project of the Results in Education Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, the executive director of the African American Leadership Forum (AALF), and an elected member of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.


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