Over the last few years, a bizarre situation has been going on here in Michigan. In 2003, a philanthropist named Robert Thompson offered to spend $200 million to build 15 charter schools in the city of Detroit, each serving 500 students, with a guarantee that each one would graduate at least 90% of its students. That plan required approval of the state legislature and in late 2003 they had reached a deal to pass a bill that allowed this to happen, but the Detroit teacher’s union called a one-day strike and marched on the state capitol to protest this plan. As a result, the Detroit mayor and Governor Granholm both pulled their support of the bill and it collapsed.
Detroit public schools are among the worst imaginable. Jack McHugh of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy gives some of the shocking facts, quoting the Standard and Poor’s School Evaluation Service report on Detroit schools:
“Detroit Public Schools generates well below-average student results with well above-average spending per student. Statewide, only 2.3 percent of Michigan’s school districts report a smaller proportion of MEAP test scores that meet or exceed state standards. Statewide, only 3.4 percent of Michigan’s school districts graduate a smaller proportion of students. Statewide, only 2.5 percent of Michigan’s school districts report a greater dropout rate. Statewide, only 9 percent of Michigan’s school districts spend more per student. Statewide, only 2.5 percent of Michigan’s school districts spend more per student on administration. When costs are adjusted for student circumstances … only 5.3 percent of Michigan’s school districts have less favorable … average amount[s] of money spent per unit of measured achievement.”
One would think that a school district with this poor a record would welcome a $200 million gift that would dramatically affect the educational opportunities for thousands of Detroit schoolchildren, but there’s one problem with that: it would compete with the public schools and if successful at reaching its goal of graduating 90% of its students, it would show that it’s possible to do much better than the public schools are currently doing. And that would put egg on the face of the educational establishment.
Now the Thompson Foundation has put its offer back on the table, along with the Skillman Foundation. And Grand Valley State University is offering to sponsor the schools (state law allows universities in the state to sponsor a certain number of charter schools). The Skillman Foundation has already donated millions to Detroit public schools that show success, including giving $1.5 million to keep the Communication & Media Arts High School, a quasi-magnet school in the city that has had great success with its educational model, open for the next 3 years.
This is not the first time the Thompson Foundation has given huge sums of money to give opportunities to students in Detroit. Their mission is to help lower income people rise out of poverty and to that end they have funded 1000 private school scholarships for Detroit city students, 500 junior college scholarships and 70 undergraduate and graduate scholarships at Michigan Tech and Michigan State. In a city with a dropout rate near 50%, you would think that they would be thrilled that someone is offering to do so much for at-risk students in that city.
But the Detroit Federation of Teachers doesn’t want the competition from charter schools. Successful charter schools, you see, would make their schools look very, very bad. And apparently covering up their lack of success is more important than providing opportunities for poor students to achieve academically. Now that Thompson’s offer is back on the table, the teacher’s union must be pressured to end their protests and stop trying to prevent the very thing they should be cheering for.