The trial of twelve Atlanta education professionals accused of racketeering wound its way into court on Monday, three years after a police probe first concluded that cheating on standardized tests was widespread in the district.
The educators run the gamut in authority, from three top school administrators to a principal and five teachers. They are accused of violating Georgia’s version of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) by modifying students’ answers on standardized tests and engaging in other fraudulent behavior. Possible motivations for the cheating range from a desire to reap larger bonuses to fear of losing jobs over a failure to meet federal No Child Left Behind requirements.
The RICO charges (which are buttresses by at least one lesser charge for each defendant) carry a sentence of five to 20 years in prison, meaning that if convicted the disgraced educators could be facing decades behind bars.
Absent from the proceedings is former Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Beverly Hall, who was indicted last year but has been deemed too sick to stand trial after developing severe breast cancer. It is possible that some defendants will attempt to deflect blame by arguing their actions were driven by pressure from the superintendent.
The 12 teachers on trial are the remaining holdouts after 21 others reached plea deals with prosecutors. Some of those who reached deals may testify against their colleagues. Even with nearly two-thirds of the accused teachers reaching deals, the logistics of the trial are formidable. The trial is expected to last for four months or more, with hundreds of possible witnesses. So many attorneys, accused, and witnesses are involved, that at one point the presiding judge suggested the trial might have to be held in a local supermarket (currently, a large downtown courtroom has been deemed sufficient).
The trials mark a low point for a school district that was formerly seen as a national success story. Atlanta was one of the country’s fastest-improving districts on standardized tests scores from 2001 onward, and in 2009, Hall was named Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators.
However, a 2009 investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution argued that scores on the eighth-grade Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT) had extremely statistically unlikely distributions.
The story spurred a wider investigation by state police, which resulted in a damning report in 2011 that found cheating to have occurred in dozens of schools with the involvement of nearly 200 educators.
Hall herself was accused of having created an environment of “fear, intimidation and retaliation” that left teachers whose students failed to improve in fear of their jobs. The revelations of cheating have destroyed district’s narrative of success, with Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal describing the accolades won by Atlanta Public Schools as “ill-gotten.”
The scandal has provoked a wide range of reactions. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the country’s largest teachers unions, blamed widespread cheating on “test-crazed policies,” while some activists have argued that racism is involved in the prosecutions. The prosecuted teachers are almost all black, as are 80 percent of students in the Atlanta Public Schools.
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