OPINION: Time to put Atlanta cheating scandal to rest

Former APS Dunbar Elementary teacher Shani Robinson gets support from her mother, Beverly Robinson, as she sits with her defense attorney Annette Greene, before the sentencing starts. Robinson, the final defendant in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial appeared for sentencing before Judge Jerry Baxter in Fulton County Superior Court, Tuesday, September 1, 2015.
Former APS Dunbar Elementary teacher Shani Robinson gets support from her mother, Beverly Robinson, as she sits with her defense attorney Annette Greene, before the sentencing starts. Robinson, the final defendant in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial appeared for sentencing before Judge Jerry Baxter in Fulton County Superior Court, Tuesday, September 1, 2015.

Credit: Kent D. Johnson

Credit: Kent D. Johnson

Co-author of book on case says it has drained public resources, deepened racial disparities and distracted from unjust policies

Anna Simonton is a senior editor for The Appeal: Political Report. She co-authored the book “None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators.”

Born and raised in Atlanta, Simonton is a graduate of Grady High School. In this guest column, Simonton urges a resolution of the Atlanta cheating case, which has recently been back in the news. You can read AJC stories about it here and here.

By Anna Simonton

It’s time to put the Atlanta Public Schools cheating case to rest.

For most of us, the scandal that rocked our public-school system has receded into the past. But for the seven educators who are still appealing convictions from 2015, based on racketeering and conspiracy charges that carry serious prison sentences, it remains a very present horror.

Last month, the cheating case made headlines once again when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard conceded to a new sentencing agreement for the educators to gain a political endorsement in his bid for reelection, according to lawyers familiar with the agreement.

And it was futile; voters last week ousted Howard in favor of Fani Willis, a former deputy district attorney who led the prosecution of APS educators.

When Howard’s political maneuvering came to light, an important truth was nearly lost in the resulting furor: regardless of Howard’s motivations and the outcome of the election, the deal he agreed to is a just and prudent resolution to a boondoggle of a case.

Yes, some have claimed that Howard wrongfully used the cheating case as a pawn in his political chess game, but that shouldn’t deter Judge Jerry Baxter, who has the ultimate deciding power, from giving the deal fair consideration.

Judge Baxter should ignore the political hoopla and approve the deal, which would grant educators time served rather than sending them to prison. Based on my experience co-authoring a book about this case, there are several reasons why I believe this would be the best outcome for everyone involved, and for Atlanta as a whole.

The educators have strong claims to innocence. But even if Baxter believes they’re guilty and should suffer consequences, in many ways they already have. All of the educators went into financial ruin after paying legal bills for an eight-month criminal trial — the longest in Georgia history.

No longer able to work in education, some are now relegated to low-wage jobs; last year one was working at an Amazon warehouse and another in a call center. Three educators lost their homes, one, a marriage. Some have seen their health and the health of family members deteriorate because of the stress of a legal battle that has dragged out for years.

The destitution they’ve experienced is a harsh punishment relative to the fates of Atlanta educators who, without a doubt, cheated. Those who admitted guilt and took plea deals avoided RICO charges and simply had to complete community service and pay fines. And all of this is blown out of proportion compared to the typical repercussions elsewhere.

Since the 2001 enactment of No Child Left Behind, a federal policy that mandated standardized testing and imposed sanctions on schools that failed to meet unrealistic goals, The National Center for Fair and Open Testing documented cheating cases in 40 states and Washington, D.C.

In these cases, educators have usually lost their professional licenses or, at most, faced misdemeanor charges. Only in Atlanta, where 34 out of the 35 educators indicted were black, did educators face felony charges saddled with decades-long prison sentences.

Anna Simonton co-wrote a book about the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal with one of the convicted educators.
Anna Simonton co-wrote a book about the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal with one of the convicted educators.

Shani Robinson’s story illustrates how some innocent people were mistakenly caught in a dragnet investigation that granted immunity to educators who admitted to cheating and accused their colleagues. Another teacher pointed the finger at Shani to avoid prosecution, yet her claim that Shani cheated as part of an effort to raise test scores and win bonus money didn’t add up. Shani was a first-grade teacher whose students only took practice tests, and she never received bonus money. That should have negated the RICO charges against her, since RICO laws concern crimes committed for financial gain.

This discrepancy wasn’t the only flaw in the case, which ultimately led to 11 educators convicted after a bizarre trial. Two witnesses recanted during testimony and many more told stories so full of contradictions that Judge Baxter himself declared, “Perjury is being committed daily here.”

Overall, the vast number of state witnesses (prosecutors originally submitted a list of 2,400 people but were forced to whittle it down to around 200) seems to have overwhelmed the jury to the point of confusion. In an appeal hearing last August, defense lawyers revealed that during the trial, the jury emailed the court to say they were, “having a hard time with who is what.”

Far from holding any smoking guns, witnesses more often recounted minutiae, like the caterer who was dragged into court to confirm that she served chicken to former APS superintendent Beverly Hall during a meeting with one of the defendants.

This information blitzkrieg may have been a concerted strategy. During pretrial hearings, prosecutors turned over terabytes of unorganized electronic documents as evidence to defense lawyers, acknowledging that it would likely take a “lifetime” to sort through. Even that was too much for Baxter, who scolded them, saying “That is a strategy, to just dump and make people spend a lot of unnecessary time.”

Taking a lot of unnecessary time continues to be the theme of this case. And spending a lot of unnecessary taxpayer money is too. The cheating case has cost millions of dollars so far, and at the most recent hearing last August, Baxter lamented that it could drag on for several more years and cost millions more. As we head into an uncertain economic future marked by deep budget cuts, prosecuting educators should not be a priority.

Most importantly, this case must be resolved because prosecuting educators hasn’t gotten us any closer to educational justice. Some students whose scores were changed have said that the cheating didn’t disrupt their academic progress in the first place. Meanwhile, studies have shown that the remediation efforts by APS have not made much of a difference for those who did need help.

An additional remediation program promised by Paul Howard never materialized. And cheating continues to be an issue in Georgia because the policies at the root of this problem have not been addressed.

A deal that allows educators time served would resolve a case that has drained public resources, deepened racial disparities, and distracted from policies that cause injustices in the education system. Closure is overdue, but it’s never too late. And Judge Baxter has the solution at his fingertips.

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