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
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
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
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
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.