The Magazine

An Offer They Could Refuse

Why Detroit teachers' unions spurned a $200 million donation.

Oct 3, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 03 • By HENRY PAYNE
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Bing, an African American, later told the Detroit Free Press, "When I heard how Bob was treated, it just didn't make sense to me. I knew there was a need. From a selfish standpoint, as a businessperson, I need educated people on my work force. I'm not anti-public schools. But I don't think they will fix public schools quick enough to stop the drain. And if parents and children don't have other options, it's a lose-lose proposition for both the public schools and the city of Detroit."

Bing's color was a powerful political asset for Thompson, and together they approached the Skillman Foundation, a black-run nonprofit that has long worked with Detroit's public schools. Even so, Bing and Skillman came under immediate fire from Detroit liberals.

A group named the Call 'Em Out Coalition gave Bing a "Sambo Sell-Out Award" at its annual dinner for partnering with a white businessman. The award was bestowed by Democratic City Council member Sharon McPhail. And the Detroit Federation of Teachers expressed its displeasure with Skillman by threatening to end its cooperation with the foundation on other city school projects.

Nevertheless, under the Michigan charter-school law, the Skillman Foundation can now proceed to implement Thompson's plan. Detroit's poor should soon see the benefits of his gift--despite the blindness of the city's leadership.

If New Orleans is a lesson in the consequences of decades of governance that left too many destitute in the inner city, then Detroit is a lesson in how hard it is to bring reform to such cites. If Democrats continue to favor the interests of unions over those of children, the cycle of poverty will capture another generation in the inner city.

On the other hand, if they wise up, real opportunities for change exist. Across America, Thompson has counterparts, wealthy businesspeople bankrolling urban reform. The likes of Amway's Dick DeVos (another Michigan multimillionaire), Wal-Mart heir John Walton, businessman Ted Forstmann, GAP founder Don Fisher, and Netflix.com CEO and founder Reed Hastings have given hundreds of millions of dollars to the poor for scholarships and charter schools. After Katrina, cities should find a way to just say yes.

Henry Payne is an occasional contributor to The Weekly Standard.