Teachers have faced unprecedented burdens during the coronavirus pandemic — the risks of teaching in person, the challenges of online schooling, and the furor over critical race theory. Now another threat looms on the horizon for a group of former educators in Atlanta: prison. The Atlanta school cheating scandal rose to national attention in 2015 when 11 Black educators were convicted of racketeering and conspiracy for allegedly cheating or enabling cheating on students’ standardized tests. The reaction from many corners was outrage.
Commentators asserted that charging teachers with RICO — a federal statute which was originally designed to prosecute mobsters — was overreaching and harsh, that Black educators were scapegoated for a widespread problem, and that sending them to prison wouldn’t solve the systemic failures that led to cheating. Eventually, the news cycle moved on, and the case was largely forgotten outside of Atlanta. But the school cheating scandal is far from over.
Seven educators who maintain their innocence are still appealing their convictions in a process that has moved at a glacial pace. Last month brought the first major development in several years: Former principal Dana Evans had her appeal rejected by the Georgia Supreme Court on Jan. 11. Evans will soon be incarcerated for one year, followed by probation, unless the trial judge agrees to modify her sentence. Retired Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter has the power to resentence these educators to time served or any number of alternatives to prison. Now local education advocates are petitioning Baxter, District Attorney Fani Willis, and other elected officials to bring a just resolution to a case that legal experts have called “a textbook example of overcriminalization and prosecutorial discretion run amok.”
It all began in 2010, when then-Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) launched a state investigation into Atlanta Public Schools because he wasn’t satisfied with the district’s internal probe into a suspiciously high number of wrong-to-right erasures on standardized tests. The problem was widespread — 20 percent of Georgia’s elementary and middle schools were flagged in a 2009 erasure analysis — but Atlanta became the focal point. Less than a week after launching the investigation, Perdue announced the state won a $400 million federal Race to the Top grant for school reform from the Obama administration. What he didn’t mention was that the grant application touted those same test scores, attributing the rise to “higher standards and harder assessments.”
Meanwhile, agents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents interrogated teachers without lawyers present, trading immunity for confessions and accusations against fellow educators. The result was a dragnet that hooked innocent people along with those who cheated. When the investigation concluded by implicating 178 educators in cheating, it was up to the local district attorney at the time, Paul Howard, to bring charges.
At that point, cheating had become commonplace in school districts across the country, due in part to federal laws like No Child Left Behind, which punished schools that didn’t increase test scores each year. In most places, the consequences for cheating amounted to suspended or revoked professional licenses, fines, and community service. When Howard indicted 35 educators (who were almost all Black and all people of color) on RICO charges in 2013, it sent shock waves through the city.
Howard stretched the bounds of RICO — which concerns crimes committed for financial gain — to allege that educators conspired to cheat to receive bonus money awarded to schools that scored well on standardized tests. The indictment was so broad that two teachers at different schools who cheated without any knowledge of the other’s actions could be cast as conspirators. And the claim about bonus money didn’t square with the state investigation, which had found that bonus money “provided little incentive to cheat.”
The 12 educators who went to trial had garnered a total of only $1,500 in bonus money, and some never received any at all. One defendant was a teacher whose students didn’t even pass the test. Others taught first and second grade, where tests were only taken for practice and didn’t count toward the metrics schools were judged upon. That was the case for Shani Robinson. She was accused by a colleague who was granted immunity by the GBI. A testing coordinator had instructed Robinson and other teachers to erase doodles students had drawn on their test booklets, a practice that was allowed under testing regulations. It wasn’t hard for her accuser to twist the scene to fit what investigators were looking for.
The trial lasted eight months — the longest criminal trial in Georgia’s history — and was marred by unreliable testimony. Most educators who were indicted had taken plea deals that required them to confess, accuse, and testify in exchange for community service instead of prison. Witnesses for the prosecution made contradictory statements so often that at one point the judge said, “Perjury is being committed daily here.” Two people even recanted on the witness stand.
At the end of the trial, prosecutors made a last-ditch effort to convince the jury that educators cheated for financial gain by claiming that their salaries — forget the bonus money — justified a RICO conviction. They reiterated that educators could be conspirators without knowing it. And where reason fell short, they relied on emotion, making impassioned declarations like, “America will never be destroyed from the outside! If we falter and lose our freedoms it will be because we destroyed ourselves!” As if Atlanta educators were responsible for the downfall of democracy.
That was the tenor of the media surrounding the trial as well. Politicians and pundits used the case to paint public education as a failure and peddle corporate-friendly reforms. On the day the prosecution rested, and the cheating scandal dominated headlines, then-Gov. Nathan Deal (R) announced a plan for the state to take over “failing” schools and turn them into charters.
Even if cheating did signal a need for sweeping change, throwing the book at teachers hasn’t led to a better education system. Some students whose tests were manipulated have said the school cheating didn’t take a toll on their academic achievement in the first place. The school district’s remediation program for those who have struggled wasn’t very impactful. And new school cheating allegations have surfaced because the policies at the root of the problem have not been addressed. Instead, two educators have served prison sentences and others are headed that way. Changing their sentences and keeping them out of prison would represent a real step toward rectifying the Atlanta school cheating scandal.
This article originally appeared on the Answer Sheet here.
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