Thwarting Progress

by Robert Butts | 10/29/03 6:00am

You've never heard of Bob Thompson, and it's a shame. America ought to laud Bob Thompson as a hero: he's a retired entrepreneur who tried to donate almost a quarter billion dollars to improve education in inner-city Detroit. For this, he deserves praise and laurels. Instead, Thompson was run out of town by Detroit's teachers' union. Try to imagine that for a moment -- it's so astoundingly petty, and so hurtful, not just to Thompson, but to the children he tried to help.

Just who is Bob Thompson, that he should attract such ingratitude? He's a Michigan native and former business owner, who retired in 1999 and sold his construction company for $442 million. Rather than dumping his wealth into yachts or bonds, Thompson turned to philanthropy. He started by giving more than $125 million back to his former employees, a reward for their contribution to growing the business that made him rich. Thompson wasn't done -- he wanted to donate even more money to his home state.

Then Thompson met Doug Ross, former Clinton administration appointee and Democratic gubernatorial candidate. In 2000 Ross had founded a small charter school in Detroit. The goal was to create a school with small classes and a specialized curriculum that could prepare inner-city students for college. Thompson toured the school and liked what he saw. He offered Ross a deal: if Ross could start a high school that would graduate 90 percent of students and send 90 percent of graduates to college, technical school or the military, then Thompson would build the school and lease it to Ross for $1.

Thompson even did one better -- he offered the city of Detroit $200 million to build 15 more charter schools. The schools could be run by the public schools or private groups; Klein notes that "any organization -- including the teachers' union -- was eligible to propose its own system if it presented a plausible plan for a 500-student campus and agreed to Thompson's 90-90 yardstick." Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm and Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick both endorsed the proposal, which would have provided a needed shot-in-the-arm for Detroit's beleaguered schools and opened the door to a college education for 7,500 inner-city students. The "Detroit Free Press" found that two-thirds of Detroit residents supported the idea.

But not the Detroit teachers' unions. They went ballistic. In September more than 3,000 union members converged on the capitol in protest. Publicly, the union objected to diverting $7,100 per pupil to the charter schools (despite the fact that the state had offered the Detroit public schools $15 million to cover the difference). Privately, the union objected to the fact that charter school teachers are not required to unionize (though Thompson said the teachers would be welcome to form a union, as long as they delivered on his 90-90 mandate).

For lack of a rational line of argument, the Detroit teachers' unions responded to Thompson's attempted generosity with vitriol and personal attacks. "One man can't come in here -- an outsider with no ties to the community -- and tell us what he's going to do," one teacher told the "Detroit Free Press." Another activist called Thompson a "dictator." And the union president told Klein that "if someone from the outside came to Bob Thompson's suburban town and said, 'I'm gonna give you a lot of money for education, but we spend it my way,' they just wouldn't tolerate it," which Klein correctly denounces as "thinly veiled racial politics."

As the fallout settles in Detroit, it becomes clear that everyone involved has lost. Thompson tried to extend a hand to Detroit children whom the schools were leaving behind, only to have his hand slapped back. In response to his vilification by activists and their hostility towards his philanthropy, Thompson did what any reasonable person might: he took his offer off the table and retreated. He is, after all, an aging retiree with health problems. His detractors, the Detroit teachers' unions, managed to thwart his generosity, but the unions also lose in the long run, now that they've been unmasked by putting union jobs ahead of the children they're supposed to educate. As mayor Kilpatrick, himself a former teacher, told Klein: "The teachers' union once was a progressive force, but that day has passed. And it's not coming back until the union realizes that we're going to have to make dramatic changes to improve education here." And the real losers, of course, are the thousands of schoolchildren who are trapped in Detroit's public schools while the walls -- sometimes literally -- come down around them.

All Bob Thompson wanted to do was help children graduate and go to college. But instead of the commendation he deserves, his generosity brought him grief. Why? Because Bob Thompson didn't understand the incestuous nature of failure in Detroit's inner-city schools, and he committed the cardinal sin of trying to bring change. As Paul Hillegonds, president of a Detroit non-profit group supporting charter schools, explained, Thompson failed because he "is not a politician. He's a well-meaning philanthropist." And that's truly a shame.