Dear Commons Community,
The Atlanta School District educators who were convicted and found guilty of charges related to student test score cheating, were sentenced yesterday after a polarizing six-year ordeal. In an unexpectedly harsh sentence, eight of the 10 educators convicted of racketeering in one of the nation’s largest public school cheating scandals were sentenced to prison terms of up to seven years after they refused to take sentencing deals that were predicated on their acceptance of responsibility and a waiver of their right to appeal. As reported in the New York Times:
“As a result, the sentences, meted out after a raucous court hearing, offered a conflicted, inconclusive coda to a scandal that has brought shame and soul-searching to Atlanta and its 50,000-student public school system. Some were furious with the sentences, and some were pleased.
And as some of the defendants vowed to appeal, it ensured that this city would continue to grapple with two harrowing and interrelated questions: How much mercy should be due a roster of educators with otherwise spotless records? And what kind of justice is due the thousands of students, most of them poor minorities, whose falsely inflated standardized test scores obscured their academic shortcomings?
Many here, amid widespread calls for leniency before the sentencing, were shocked at the severity of the sentences handed down by Judge Jerry W. Baxter, who had seemed to indicate on Monday that he wanted to avoid prison terms. But after the deals fell through, and while declaring the cheating scandal “the sickest thing that’s ever happened in this town,” he imposed sentences that appeared to be more harsh than those in similar cheating scandals elsewhere and that exceeded what criminals sometimes receive for violent crimes.
The racketeering charges carried a 20-year maximum sentence, and some defendants were also found guilty of lesser crimes. Prosecutors said the teachers had participated in a wide-ranging conspiracy to artificially inflate students’ standardized test scores and give a false sense that struggling schools were improving, all within a system led by a superintendent, Beverly L. Hall, who demanded that administrators meet ambitious testing targets.
A 2013 grand jury indictment named 35 Atlanta Public Schools employees, including Dr. Hall. Prosecutors said the educators who engaged in the conspiracy did so to win bonuses, protect their jobs or please their superiors.
Most of the accused took plea deals and avoided trial, and two other defendants, including Dr. Hall, died before they could have a day in court.
Episodes of misconduct by educators elsewhere in the United States previously led to short terms of incarceration. In Ohio, for instance, a former administrator in Columbus’s public schools served 15 days in jail after pleading no contest to attempted tampering with records.
Erica O. Turner, an assistant professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, called the Atlanta sentences “entirely unprecedented.”
“In other places, I haven’t seen quite the same resources and the same desire to prosecute educators for cheating,” she said.
Along with pleas for lenience here, there was acknowledgment that the real victims were the children whose education was tainted by falsified test scores that misrepresented what they had learned.
Fani T. Willis, a trial prosecutor, said the outcome showed that the poor African-American children who were the real victims “have dignity, and they matter.”
“That, I think,” she said, “is what Atlanta should be proud of.”