The recent donation by Facebook owner Mark Zuckerberg of $100 million to Newark’s struggling schools stands in sharp contrast to a similar offer to another downtrodden city that, nearly a decade ago, decided to turn down a donation double that of Zuckerberg’s.
While the name Bob Thompson will never be as nationally known as Zuckerberg’s, Thompson, who built his fortune through asphalt and not the Internet, pledged to donate his entire fortune of $200 million to build 15 charter schools in Detroit; a place that Education Secretary Arne Duncan called the “Ground Zero” of America’s education problems.
The city of Detroit, which has a school system of close to 100,000 students (95 percent of which live in poverty), only graduates 38 percent of its students on time. This percentage puts them below Baltimore (42 percent) and D.C. (58 percent). About 97 percent of Detroit high school juniors failed state math tests last year, and about 80 percent failed in English. Earlier this year, over 40 schools closed down in the city due to aging buildings and failing enrollment.
Newark schools, which have been under state control for 15 years, have also struggled mightily with test scores and graduation rates that are among the lowest in the state.
The pledge by Thompson, who donated a portion of his wealth to his employees when he retired, was rejected by a bloc comprised of the Detroit teachers union, Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm, and then-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick.
While the Detroit Federation of Teachers feared the influx of charter schools, the offer by Thompson was unconditional. The DFT had the opportunity to dictate the curriculum, but they rejected the proposal and protested in front of City Hall. With their approval ratings at all-time lows, Thompson and Granholm had no interest in engaging in a war with the powerful teacher’s union.
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