Thurman spat a handy way to avoid talk of failing schools

Thurman spat a handy way to avoid talk of failing schools

July 17th, 2011 by Steve Barrett in Opinion Columns

The most compelling - and encouraging - thing about the kerfuffle over Rhonda Thurman's remarks on local schools is not the remarks themselves. By a sensible reading, they aren't especially controversial. It's how little traction her critics have gotten in their triumphal assertion that this time she's gone too far!

If Thurman had a dime for every time some fist-waving somebody pronounced her finished, she could summer at a chalet in Switzerland.

In case you don't have it memorized yet, she told the Times Free Press, in reference to inner-city versus suburban schools: "I don't think suburban students have been treated fairly. 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."

Some readers may have honestly misconstrued her. But the usual suspects twisted her comments into the claim that she considers inner-city children the equivalent of slaves.

Two weeks down the road, however, the Thurmanators are beginning to sound like a badly scratched Partridge Family record - and even an un-scratched Partridge Family record ain't exactly a trip to Funville. The true believers, eager to imagine that Thurman is out to get people who look different from her, had their say. And some pro-forma, second-tier tut-tutting continues.

But one absorbs the sense that so far as the general public is concerned, it's all over but the shoutin'. Thurman attended the next board meeting as planned and wasn't noticeably burned at the stake. If there is a groundswell in her district for her resignation, it has been drowned out by the soft chirping of crickets, punctuated by the occasional, mellow croak of a frog. I'd be surprised if she faces a significant challenge, should she run again.

Thurman's point apparently was as self-evident to the silent majority as it was to her: If some slaves - and certainly many freed slaves - learned to read despite a level of oppression to which few modern Americans can relate, there's no reason why a substantial number of today's poor, attending schools showered with thousands of dollars in per-pupil spending, have to remain illiterate.

The reluctance of the world to stop turning in response to the ginned-up furor that followed those comments points to the waning power of accusations of racism to silence dissent. The charge has been made illegitimately in so many circumstances that its impact is fading. Boil an egg and you might be a racist. Play Parcheesi and you're probably a racist. Suggest that children from disadvantaged backgrounds can learn, and wow, it's time to break out the Klan suits.

The all-purpose use of the race card has destroyed the shock value that those who play it rely upon to halt debate and get their way. The list of potential grievances is endless, and thus bordering on meaningless.

While it's good that the public is wising up to this manipulation, it's not good that the manipulators are still setting the terms of the conversation. Every minute spent having to refute frivolous allegations is a minute not spent fixing an educational system that sends too many youths into society academically unprepared.

I'll bet that lots of folks who indignantly recite Thurman's comments do not recall this inconvenient fact from the same article: Hamilton County got C's in academic achievement and three D's and only one B in student academic progress on its 2010 state report card. And while there is now much merry-making that slightly higher percentages of local students have scored in the advanced or proficient range on standardized tests, a far larger point - that overall, most continue to score at only the basic or below-basic level in the key subjects of reading and math - is lost like a Pomeranian in tall fescue.

If those numbers are cause for celebration, then the real bigotry we face is the soft bigotry of low expectations. Unequipped students will be competing - or rather, not competing - for high-skill technical jobs in a few years. But in an exercise that looks a lot like fretting over who gets the last slice of pound cake on the Hindenburg, the critics are fussing at Rhonda Thurman and putting off, once again, any real discussion of the gargantuan topic of non-achievement.

A lot of parents in Hamilton County are sick of the delay, judging from the schooling decisions they're making for their children. At a forum on the knowledge that young people will need to get decent jobs, County Commissioner Warren Mackey pointed out that of 57,000 local students, 15,000 - more than a fourth - attend private schools. That's greater than twice the national rate.

"That's kind of [a] statement," Mackey said, "of where we stand relative to our schools and training and what they're doing."

And how.

Yet calls for reform have a funny way of winding up on a stretcher in the ER. State Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, introduced a bill in the last legislative session to let poor children in the state's four largest counties, including Hamilton, escape from some of the worst public schools by using low-cost vouchers to attend better-performing private or public schools.

Similar measures succeeded in Florida and Washington, D.C., and the bill passed overwhelmingly in the Tennessee Senate. But Hamilton County's former superintendent, among others, sought the defeat of the proposal, and it got buried in committee in the House.

Happily, that may only mean that foes of reform are badly misreading the times. The idea that children should be kept trapped in bad schools is late for an appointment with the trash compactor of history - and tactics that divert attention from the deplorable status quo are eventually bound to collapse under the weight of their own absurdity.