Prominent local black leaders from across the community gathered here Wednesday to call for Rhonda Thurman to resign from the Hamilton County school board because of her apparent racism with regard to the school system’s programs for black students. They have good reason to seek her resignation. She should resign.
By her own repeated statements, Thurman has no regard for the school system’s initiatives to elevate student achievement in predominantly black schools, and apparently no larger view or understanding of the need for such initiatives or their benefits to individual students and schools, and to the broader community.
She has said that she thinks these programs are a waste of time and money, and that she would like to end them and shift the money and resources to mainly white suburban schools. That’s the way things used to be in an era of separate and unequal schools, which were found by the U.S. Supreme Court to be unconstitutional.
In a school system with a large minority population, her racist attitude is demeaning, intolerable, divisive and destructive. And in a county which is trying hard to build an advanced economy with an international base, her presence on the school board — and her role in ousting our first countywide black superintendent — is embarrassing and harmful.
In a statement published last Sunday in an exclusive interview in this newspaper, Thurman caustically dramatized her implicitly racist views by negatively comparing under-achieving black students with poor people and slaves who, she said, had learned to read and write.
“I don’t think suburban students have been treated fairly,” she said in that interview. “Poor people learn. Slaves learned to read. I don’t know why poor people can’t learn to read and write. I have a lot of poor people in my family, but they are still expected to learn.”
With respect to inherent racism, there is no kind way to interpret that demeaning sentiment. Moreover, the underlying linkage with a largely incorrect view of slavery — and the laws that prohibited teaching slaves to read — makes it even more haunting.
As a school board member, Thurman fails to distinguish two important issues that impair her ability to serve well on the board.
One issue, the fundamental educational piece, is that historical under-achievement in largely minority schools is not because individual black students are inherently unable to master reading and learning skills. Rather, low achievement stems largely from cultural and familial issues that were born out of a shameful legacy of Jim Crow-era poverty and suppression of civil rights, and that still pose barriers to learning.
In fact, there are many excellent students in largely minority schools. Principals and teachers at largely black schools here can point with deserved pride to long lists of students who are high achievers and superior students.
But to raise learning levels broadly on par with students from more advantaged backgrounds, they need additional resources — more teachers to allow lower class sizes, more capacity for individual mentoring, outreach to parents to make them more effective first teachers, programs to establish early reading skills. Fostering an enduring culture of learning in neighborhoods that are economically impoverished and often subject to higher levels of unemployment and crime, however, takes time and persistent effort.
Thurman is apparently frustrated with the pace and would abort the effort. That not only reveals her disdain for the effort to raise minority achievement. It also raises the other fundamental issue about misperceived equity and her favoritism for suburban schools, which long received the lion’s share of public school resources — and most of the system’s best teachers — before federal courts overturned separate and unequal schools for blacks.
In short, she is wrong on the current fiscal impact. The resources that have gone to boosting inner-city schools have not been taken from the state and local per-student funding dollars that go to all schools, so suburban schools are not giving up resources to help inner-city schools.
In fact, it is funding from federal Title 1 programs for schools with high levels of impoverished students and families that provides additional resources to most urban schools here. In addition, three Chattanooga foundations and one national foundation have also provided tens of millions of dollars over the last decade to boost inner-city schools.
This additional funding would not be available to most suburban schools, even if the inner-city schools suddenly vanished. That Thurman thinks otherwise — and that she is so resentful about the extra funding for black schools and wishes suburban schools could take it — is testimony to her racial bias and to the need for her to resign from the school board.
Her cramped and racist views taint the school board. Thurman should resign, and make her seat available to a more enlightened and forward-looking leader.