You may have read the news recently about Akron, Ohio native and basketball legend LeBron James getting involved with a new public school for disadvantaged students. The name of the school is I Promise, and it promises to advance young students who are behind on reading and other subjects to a guaranteed acceptance and full scholarship at Akron University.

Besides free bikes, Chromebooks, and meals, I Promise has a little-known secret weapon: a teachers’ union that is totally independent of the national teachers’ unions—the NEA and AFT.

I Promise teachers and administrators are members of the Akron Education Association (AEA), a large local-only union that has been independent since 1978 and served its members well. When LeBron James came to town pitching his idea for the I Promise school, which required special skills and longer hours from teachers—all with higher pay—AEA bent over backward to make it happen. The union negotiated a customized memorandum of understanding with the Akron school board. 

This flexible arrangement would have been unlikely if rule-bound, bloated state or national teachers’ unions had been able to interfere.

Along with the opportunity to work in such an exciting program, I Promise teachers reap two additional benefits from their local-only independence: they have much more of a voice in their union for much lower dues. Instead of being herded into a union that they didn’t even vote on, AEA promotes a shared-leadership model with regular elections and delegates executive roles to teachers and administrators from several public schools. Plus, as teachers in Michigan have discovered, dues can massively decrease when a school district switches from a state or national union to a local-only.

LeBron’s new public school shows promise because it’s not just blowing smoke. Unlike other schools touting some “new approach,” I Promise is genuinely operating independently thanks to its local-only union. It’s a lesson about customized education that can be applied anywhere.

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