With some of the nation’s most devastated schools, Detroit is in desperate need of new ideas, new energy, and lots of money.
But when local advocates approach organizations that have invested millions of dollars—and countless hours of problem-solving—into jumpstarting schools in cities like Washington, Memphis, Indianapolis, and New Orleans, the answer often comes back the same:
No. Not Detroit. Not now.
“It’s been a struggle for sure,” said Dan Varner, the CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit. Varner says he’s approached “dozens” of deep-pocketed philanthropies like the Gates Foundation, prominent education organizations that boost schools around the country, and charter networks that run successful schools in other cities.
“We were looking for real substantive help, and all of them have poked around and have done their homework and have decided not to [come].”
Plenty of Detroiters say that’s a good thing. They point to SWAT teams of education “reformers” who’ve promised to fix urban schools, only to be accused of trampling democracy—as happened recently in Newark, New Jersey, when Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg poured $100 million into schools and angered many locals in the process.
But Varner and others see an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of cities like New York, which turned to national funders to overhaul high schools, and Memphis, where foundation funding spurred a sweeping effort to improve teaching.