A Michigan philanthropist’s decision to withdraw his offer to invest $200 million in Detroit may not end the fight over charter schools in the city.
The heated political standoff sparked by Bob Thompson’s plan to build 15 charter schools in Detroit served as a reminder to charter proponents, philanthropists, and foundations of the challenges that can arise in working with public school systems.
A legislative deal that would have cleared the way for the “Thompson schools,” while raising the statewide cap on the number of university-chartered schools, fell apart last month. That proposal prompted teacher protests in Lansing that forced Detroit’s 157,000-student school system to cancel classes for a day. (“Proposal for Charter Schools Roils Detroit, Oct. 8, 2003.)
But Michigan lawmakers already had passed legislation to make the donation possible, without increasing the number of charters granted statewide. And on Oct. 2, state Attorney General Michael Cox ruled that the charter bill had become law, because Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm, a Democrat, had not vetoed it.
That same day, Mr. Thompson bowed out, sensing that the decision would heighten divisions in Detroit.
“I am disappointed and saddened by the anger and hostility that has greeted our proposal,” Mr. Thompson said in a statement. “The proposal was meant to be for kids and not against anyone or any institution,” he said.
While Mr. Thompson’s offer of millions has vanished, others may come forward to run the Detroit charter high schools, because the law did not specifically refer to the philanthropist, said Dan Quisenberry, the president of the Michigan Association of Public School Academies. The Lansing-based group represents most of the state’s 201 charter schools.
“You don’t get that far under that much controversy without people needing this and wanting this,” he said, referring to charter schools, which are public but largely independent schools.
However, a state senator last week filed a lawsuit to block the new law.
The Detroit debacle likely will provide ammunition to both sides in the rhetorical wars over charter schools, said Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a supporter of charter schools.
Unions will recognize the power they possess to stall charter school efforts, he said, while proponents will point to the extremes critics will go to limit school choice.
Detroit’s charter school dispute also represents another example of the frustrations of working with school systems, which are government entities and therefore political, said William Porter, the executive director of Grantmakers for Education, a national network of charitable groups in Portland, Ore.
Funders must find a way to work effectively with school leaders and the community, he observed.