“I know these kids basically more than they know themselves. I’ve walked the same streets, I’ve rode the same bikes on the streets they ride on, I went through the same emotions, the good, the bad, the adversity…..Everything they’re going through as kids I know and for me to be in a position where I have the resources, the finances, the people, the structure, and the city around me, why not?” LeBron James, basketball player and educator
LeBron James considers the founding of the “I Promise “set of educational initiates in Akron, Ohio to be the most important professional accomplishment of his life. And he understands the importance of anticipation—on the basketball court his mind and talent are one step ahead. Is it possible to gain a step or two in education? We have tried but too often failed.
Today’s racial rhetoric is hot—understandably. What about tomorrow? Is it possible to confront successfully the most difficult challenge, the failure of education to meet both social and technology challenges?
In 1994 I began, barely, to understand the challenges confronting children born into challenging circumstances in New York City. It was the year my wife and I became mentors and I started down a path that led me to start READ Alliance in 2000.
My wife and I lived in Manhattan and on a street that was home to two private elementary and secondary schools. Both were first or second steps in gaining an elite education. I also spent time in the schools in Harlem and the Bronx where READ was most active.
My experiences were both rewarding and frustrating. The rewarding part featured measurable progress in educational attainment by kids that certainly didn’t enjoy the advantages I had growing up. My Mom, an English teacher, pushed hard against my resistance.
The frustrations were caused by the static energy in the educational establishment—school choice, for example, was opposed by the teacher’s union. On the other side of the political spectrum, many conservatives attacked affirmative action as unconstitutional.
I should note that in politics, affirmative action recalls a famous political operative’s quip, “money is the mother milk of politics.” It is not hard to trace a large percentage of annual appropriations to powerful special interest groups and their money. My view is simple: a healthy society designs and operates programs that give children economic opportunities. Large gaps in opportunity are both tragic and undermine our economic foundation, capitalism.
I did have one fleeting experience with New York’s teacher’s union; it took place in Albany, the State’s capital. READ Alliance taught high school students to tutor young children who were reading below grade level. The Union attempted to block public funds to be used by READ, insisting that all teaching must be performed by certified teachers. Fortunately READ prevailed.
Joe Biden, recently, in speaking to a convention of the National Education Association (NEA) pledged fealty to their views. He went so far as noting his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, is a member of the association and will kick him out of bed if he doesn’t walk the NEA line.
I love teachers, my Mom was one, but I also know that the NEA’s mission is to look out for teacher’s interests. Its members number 3.2 million. Unions exist to negotiate for better economic benefits and to preserve or enhance the operational satisfaction of its members. This is neither good nor bad, it is just fact.
But let me return to the central question. After Confederate icons have been purged and police reforms implemented, what’s next? How can enduring change, leading to a significant measure of equality, gain the upper-hand? If there is no Next in confronting the disparity of results in education and resulting job opportunities, persistence will prevail—the persistence of the status quo—an absence of dynamic energy.
Bill Gates has led the wealthy in trying to confront the challenges facing many youth in education. Recently he was chosen by Governor Andrew Cuomo to lead a New York initiative to reimagine education. But, LeBron James has helped lead the insightful—he knows the territory. Recall his words: “I know these kids basically more than they know themselves.”
Especially in this economic environment, with public revenues declining, America needs its wealthiest to step up. I would simply suggest that Bill Gates and his peers turn to those who have faced the challenge.
I would also suggest that the political class go to Akron. That they size up the comprehensive approach being taken by I Promise—the blending of elementary, secondary and higher education. Models of progress are needed—without dynamic change little concrete progress will be made.
Presidential candidates are more than ever declaring that on their first day in office, by Executive Order, they will do this or that. I get it—such a declaration is good campaigning. But what 2020’s winner should do on his first day is share the stage in Akron with LeBron James (or another similarly informed success model). Bring along the Vice-president, and give him/her real power to bring about change. 2024, the next election, will be too late for hundreds of thousands of kids whose most important development moment will have come and gone—that is a real emergency.
Al Sikes is the former Chair of the Federal Communications Commission under George H.W. Bush. Al recently published Culture Leads Leaders Follow published by Koehler Books.