Detroit School Establishment Turns Away $200 million Gift

Thanks to the poisonous atmosphere created by a hostile Detroit public school establishment, philanthropist Robert Thompson has decided, with deep regret, that it is impossible for him to donate a $200 million gift to the city’s school children.

The gift would have come in the form of 15 new charter high schools that would have guaranteed a graduation rate of 90 percent. The city’s current graduation rate is 67.2 percent, according to the School Evaluation Services web site created by the financial ratings firm Standard and Poors (S&P). Many believe that even this low graduation rate is inflated by inaccurate reports filed by Detroit Public Schools.

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After seeking legislative authorization for his schools for almost a year, Thompson threw in the towel after the Detroit teachers union threw what can only be described as a tantrum over the prospect of having to compete with charter schools. On hearing that Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm had made a deal with the Republican Legislature on a comprehensive charter school expansion package that would have included the Thompson academies, Detroit teachers shut down the schools with a one-day walkout on Sept. 25. Instead of teaching on that school day, 3,000 of these primary beneficiaries of the government school status quo held a mass demonstration at the state Capitol.

In response to this pressure from the public school establishment, both the governor and Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick walked away from the Thompson gift and from the broader charter deal, which also withdrew governance of the city’s school district from the state-imposed reform board and returned it to a locally elected school board with strong mayoral input.

Here’s the S&P web site’s description of a district that can apparently do without a $200 million gift aimed at improving the educational prospects of its schoolchildren:

"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."

While this portrait of failure doesn’t cause the educational establishment to spring into action, the prospect of charter schools — which might change things for the better — shuts down the schools and brings out the protesters. Several generations of children have suffered under this dysfunctional system. The S&P web site describes the outcome of such failure: "The district’s below-average MEAP results, coupled with unfavorable graduation and dropout rates, may not only increase the community’s proportion of under-educated students, but may also place the prospective labor pool created by the district at a competitive disadvantage."

The district’s failure also costs the rest of the state. A study by my organization, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, found that statewide, more than $600 million in annual costs are incurred by Michigan business and institutions of higher learning when students leave high school without learning basic skills. The Detroit district is a major contributor to this expense.

Would the Thompson academies have helped? Surely the requirement of a 90 percent graduation rate would have motivated efforts on the part of educators that Detroit will not see now that the Thompson gift has been turned down. In addition, Mackinac Center research shows that, despite efforts of the public school establishment to undercut them, performance of students in Michigan’s charter schools on the state’s MEAP achievement test is improving at a rate dramatically faster than in traditional schools

So why did those primary beneficiaries of the Detroit School District — the employees who collect paychecks from it — sabotage a $200 million gift of hope for young people who have little to hope for under the status quo? Another fact from S&P explains:

"Statewide, only 3.6 percent of Michigan’s school districts report higher average teacher salaries than the [Detroit] district."

Detroit's education regime is celebrating today. What it does not know is that it has forsaken any moral standing in the school reform debate, and any claim on the sympathies of Michigan’s citizens. By their actions, the defenders of this failed system could not have made their scale of priorities more clear. Very low on that scale are the future prospects and current well being of the children forced to attend this tragic monument to failure and hopelessness.

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Note: Jack McHugh is legislative policy analyst for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute based in Midland, Mich. He is also editor of, a free web site that monitors bills and votes in the Michigan Legislature.