Overcoming the past is critical to improving Kansas City schools

02/23/2014 5:31 PM

02/23/2014 5:31 PM

Before Kansas City Public Schools can advance academically, the school board, administration and community should hold truth and reconciliation hearings on the district’s troubled past.

Throughout the Kansas City area and the state, many seem unwilling to forget or forgive the district’s racially tinged history. Public hearings would borrow a page from South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which helped that country heal the wounds of years of apartheid government. It would be great to start during Black History Month.

The idea springs from Missouri Court of Appeals Western District Judge Lisa White Hardwick. She spoke at the holiday celebration in Johnson County for the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Hardwick said King and Nelson Mandela taught us to forgive the past, “let go of retribution,” embrace the future and think of ways to lessen inequality and direct society toward a “greater good.”

School district officials need that “greater good” so they can gain accreditation and push the students to academic excellence. But they are constantly distracted by those unwilling to forgive the district for the past that it’s trying to overcome.

Focused finally on a “greater good,” Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro last week presented a plan to the state Board of Education that would assist unaccredited districts like Kansas City to become successful instead of dismantling them. The board could decide next month what action to take. Many questions remain and there are no certain answers.

State education officials have withheld provisional accreditation from Kansas City schools even though the district showed improvement. Remaining unaccredited would trigger a student transfer law next school year. Kansas City Superintendent Stephen Green said last week at a news conference that he is confident the district can regain provisional accreditation avoiding that problem.

Unaccredited Normandy and Riverview Gardens schools in the St. Louis area are suffering the loss of students and money now because of the transfer law. Instead of being punitive, we need to focus on what’s best for the children, area families, homeowners and businesses.

But we’ll never get to that “greater good” until we overcome age-old awful feelings about majority-minority schools like Kansas City’s. Televised truth and reconciliation hearings can generate a public healing. Schools were once part of America’s government-enforced racism.

That ensured a segregated, second-class education for black kids and poor housing and lesser jobs for their families. When the courts did away with the American apartheid system, many whites fled to the suburbs and private schools rather than integrate.

Those who left and many who stayed remain angry. That anger increased after a federal judge 30 years ago ruled the district still suffered the effects of pre-1954 segregation, which the state failed to fix.

Since then a court-imposed state income tax surcharge and district property tax increase poured $2 billion into Kansas City schools for better buildings and instruction. But the community anger only grew over the forced funding, poor results, leadership turnover, school board meddling, overall instability and the continued exodus of families.

A stable, functioning school board starting about five years ago marked a turnaround. Green has added to the stability and raised performance. With more community support, academic improvements would accelerate. Superintendents in surrounding districts even want to help.

Imagine students in Kansas City schools taking classes on the Web offered by teachers in the suburbs or vice versa. The Internet makes it possible. But public truth and reconciliation hearings should come first to dissipate the remaining anger and resentment.

Continuing as things are won’t benefit anyone.

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