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 Article of Interest - Funding

State Is Foolish to Turn Down $500 Million Gifts to Education
Inflexible policy blocks new Detroit schools and a college in Washtenaw County.
from the Detroit News, February 24, 2003

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Bob Thompson has invested part of his fortune in a Detroit charter school. He has offered to finance the building of up to 15 charter high schools in Detroit.

Detroit needs to reconsider a generous offer from Bob Thompson, a retired entrepreneur from Plymouth. Thompson wants to put up to $300 million into urban education but is spurned by lawmakers and the entrenched education establishment.

The rebuff is unconscionable in a city where failed schools have left some 47 percent of adults functionally illiterate and where the school system faces deficits. Thompson's money won't cure all the problems, of course. But there is no excuse for snubbing grass-roots help.

Thompson's plan stresses performance in a deal that works like this: Open a Detroit charter high school, graduate 90 percent of the students, send them to college or other training and Thompson will give the city a new building at $1 a year.

In short, he's offering free money. But lawmakers and others object. In December, former Gov. John Engler made a pitch to permit up to 15 Thompson-backed charter schools in Detroit. It failed by two votes in the Senate. Then-Sen. Joe Young Jr., D-Detroit, put it this way: "How do you teach people to solve their own problems when outsiders are saying, 'I will solve your problem.'"

On top of that, the senator's objections reflect neither common sense nor Detroit tradition. Every mayor since Jerry Cavanagh in the 1960s needled suburban businessmen to take more interest in the city, to put money where their mouths were. But when Thompson does exactly that, he's rejected without reasonable cause.

Some naysayers don't want to tie education to performance -- a drifting approach that got Detroit into trouble in the first place. Others object to the very idea of charter schools -- public facilities with more freedom to develop curriculum.

The objections are outside the mainstream. Some 72 percent of Michigan residents favor charters, according to a survey by Michigan State University. Blacks are more supportive than whites (75 percent to 71 percent). Parents see charters as a way to save children from traditional schools, and most of Michigan's 187 charter schools have waiting lists.

Rejecting Thompson is not the first time Michigan looked a gift education horse in the mouth. Entrepreneur Tom Monaghan wanted to drop $200 million for a new campus in Washtenaw County for Ave Maria University, the Catholic school the billionaire founded. But county and local officials couldn't bring themselves to accommodate required zoning changes.

So Monaghan, founder of Domino's Pizza, took his money to southern Florida and will assemble Ave Maria on 750 acres near Naples. The school is making a splash as the first new Catholic university in four decades -- prominence detailed in a recent page one story in the Sunday New York Times.

Meanwhile in Washtenaw, communities report pending deficits and financial straits linked to a sour economy. Odds are, the county would have benefited from the $200 million in Ave Maria construction spending, not to mention the ongoing flow of revenue that students bring to any local economy.

Monaghan's move to Florida is a done deal. And Thompson would be within his rights to kiss off public education, given the shoddy treatment he has received. But he says he won't.

Thompson's generous attitude is a second chance for lawmakers to put aside the politics of public education and do something to help the children of Detroit. 

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