Liberal politicians and education activists heaped praise on LeBron James for founding an Ohio school for struggling students. The school has since generated some of the worst academic performance levels in the state.
A slew of prominent Democrats—including Barack and Michelle Obama and Ohio senator Sherrod Brown—applauded James as he built the I Promise School in Akron, which the basketball star opened in 2018. While the school received $8.4 million from Akron taxpayers last year, according to numbers provided to the Washington Free Beacon, zero students in the school's inaugural class of third graders were proficient in math in the last three years. Black students, who make up 60 percent of the school’s population, have also tested in the state's bottom 5 percent, compelling the Ohio Department of Education to put I Promise on a list of failing schools in need of intervention.
James is known for being a politically active athlete—the Los Angeles Lakers player has donated tens of thousands of dollars to Democrats, held a rally for failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and pushed the National Basketball Association to support left-wing causes. The issues plaguing his I Promise School, however, show how the left's political partnerships with celebrities can backfire. Michelle Obama in 2018 said she and her husband were "so proud" that James was using his school to give "our kids a chance to shoot for the stars." Brown, meanwhile, called James's school "remarkable" and praised the athlete as a "strong voice and advocate for the next generation."
Neither the Obamas nor Brown have since addressed the school's woes. But some local officials have not held back their criticism of James, with Akron Public Schools Board of Education member Valerie McKitrick last month expressing disbelief that "not one child passed the state test in math." "Not one? For three years?" McKitrick asked.
I Promise School officials nonetheless defended the poor performance. LeBron James Family Foundation senior director Victoria McGee said the school's students "are more than a test score," adding that school officials "do our best."
In addition to the Obamas and Brown, liberal education activists at the Center for American Progress also endorsed James's school. Neil Campbell, who served as director of innovation or K-12 education policy at the liberal think tank, said in 2018 that "great schools like LeBron James's new I Promise School … are what America's kids need." James Hagopian, author of Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, similarly praised James for starting a "public school—not a charter school that drains money from the rest of the schools." James's I Promise School is part of the Akron Public Schools system.
The district's director of school improvement, Keith Liechty-Clifford, called the school's performance "discouraging," while board president Derrick Hall lamented the large amount of public resources that have gone to the school.
"For me as a board member, I just think about all the resources that we're providing," Hall said. "And I just, I'm just disappointed that I don't think, it doesn't appear like we're seeing the kind of change that we would expect to see."