How the Unions Killed a Dream

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In 1999, an unassuming Michigan road builder named Bob Thompson sold his construction company for $442 million, an amount he and his wife Ellen believed was far more than they needed for retirement. His first act, which received national attention, was to distribute $128 million to his employees; about 80 became instant millionaires. Then Thompson decided to donate most of the rest of his money to public education, preferably in Detroit. After doing some research, he offered $200 million to build 15 small, independent public high schools in the inner city. A few weeks ago, Thompson withdrew his offer after the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) led a furious, and scurrilous, campaign against his generosity. The philanthropist is in seclusion now—friends say he is stunned and distressed—but his is a story that deserves telling.

Thompson's research led him to Doug Ross, founder of University Preparatory Academy in Detroit. Ross is a prominent New Democrat policy wonk who served in Bill Clinton's Labor Department, then went home to Michigan and ran unsuccessfully for Governor in 1998. "I learned during the campaign there was one overpowering issue for inner-city parents: to get their kids a college education," Ross told me. "I was tired of theoretical policy junk; I wanted to do something that really mattered. It was clear that urban kids were not responding to the industrial-age assembly-line education model—and there were people around the country who had figured out how to educate kids in a more humane, customized way."

Indeed, recent studies indicate that small schools with specialized curriculums have much lower dropout rates and higher college-admission rates than traditional education factories. "The cost per pupil is a bit higher," says Patty Stonesifer of the Gates Foundation, which has become a major supporter of the small-school movement. "But the cost per graduate is much lower—and that really should be our goal."

Ross decided to tackle the toughest education problem: middle school. He started in 2000 with 112 sixth-graders and has added a new grade each year. He had been in business two years when Thompson came to visit. "I had him sit in on some classes," Ross says. "He liked what he saw and asked how he could help. I asked him to build me a high school. He said he'd build one to my specifications and lease it to me for $1 per year—but there had to be accountability. How would he know if I was succeeding or not? I told him my goals—a 90% graduation rate and 90% of graduates going on to college. If I didn't meet those bench marks after three graduating classes, he could take the school away and let someone else give it a try."

This was, essentially, the deal that Thompson offered Detroit. He didn't specify curriculum or who should run the 15 independent charter schools. Theoretically, 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. New state legislation would be needed to establish the schools. But both Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and Governor Jennifer Granholm were thrilled by Thompson's offer—at least until the Detroit Federation of Teachers made plain its opposition. On Sept. 25 the DFT held a work stoppage, which closed the public schools, and staged a rally at the state capitol in Lansing. The mayor withdrew his support, and Thompson withdrew his offer soon after.

"The Thompson schools would devastate the critical mass of students who remained in our traditional schools," Janna Garrison, president of the DFT, told me last week. She was referring to the $7,100 per pupil that would travel with each student who chose to go to a charter school (although the state offered the Detroit schools $15 million to compensate for the lost funds). This is a familiar union song—similar to the argument against school vouchers—that grows less powerful as urban schools grow worse. The fact that charter-school teachers in Detroit are not union members probably had something to do with the union's stand too (Ross said he would accept a union if his teachers wanted one). But Garrison took the argument a step further: "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."

This was thinly veiled racial politics. "You've got a lot of poison in the air," Mayor Kilpatrick told me. "People here are sensitive about white people bossing them around." Kilpatrick insisted he wasn't opposed to more charter schools; his own children go to one. And he was not pleased by the union's role, even though he's a former teacher. "The teachers' union once was a progressive force, but that day has passed," he says. "And it's not coming back until the union realizes that we're going to have to make dramatic changes to improve education here."