What’s fair punishment for APS cheaters? Depends on who you ask

Abby Martin and Thelma Wyatt Cummings Moore both know the law and will be closely watching Monday when 10 former educators are sentenced for their roles in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating scandal.

The two women, like many in Atlanta, have vastly different viewpoints about how justice should be served.

Martin, an attorney who attended countless APS meetings since questions about cheating emerged in 2008, believes those convicted deserve lengthy prison sentences.

Moore, a retired Fulton County judge, noted Georgia laws passed in recent years aim at putting fewer people in prison. This case, she said, calls for putting those laws into practice.

“The bottom line is, if Georgia supports alternative sentencing, then this is the case that calls out for alternative sentencing,” said Moore, who taught in Chicago before embarking on a legal career in Atlanta.

Passionate pleas like these are being made across Atlanta and in other corners of the country. Some are aghast at the prospect of these nonviolent felons facing up to 20 years in prison. Others say prison is appropriate considering the long-term impact cheating will have on those students who were pushed through school.

“There is no preferential treatment for educators,” said Martin, whose son graduated from APS with classmates she and others suspect were victims of cheating. “They’re criminals and they robbed people of their futures.”

The guilty Atlanta educators are facing unprecedented prison sentences of five to 20 years because of the hefty “RICO” charges against them. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was initially used by prosecutors to put away gangsters involved in crimes such as extortion and murder, but it is being used now for people accused of check fraud or gambling with video poker machines. And for educators conspiring to inflate student scores on the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

Punishment for cheating is a new debate topic for Atlanta and most of the nation, as more reports of educator-led test-tampering bubble up across the country.

In El Paso, the former superintendent was sentenced in 2012 to 42 months in prison in part for engineering a test-cheating scandal. According to media reports, he directed school officials to hold low-performing ninth-graders back or encourage them to drop out so they wouldn’t take state standardized tests in 10th grade, thus boosting the district’s results and ensuring his bonus.

In Columbus, Ohio, the former superintendent of the city’s school system pleaded no contest in January to a misdemeanor charge of dereliction of duty and was sentenced to one year of probation and 100 hours of community service. At least one other district official was sentenced to jail time, and another to probation. There, educators are accused of withdrawing low-performing students, then re-enrolling them so their state exam scores would not be counted against the schools.

And in Philadelphia, the state’s attorney general has so far charged at least eight educators with crimes related to test-tampering, and more arrests are expected. There, some allegations are strikingly similar to the big one in Atlanta: a widespread cheating scheme with educators using answer keys to change answers on state exams to boost school scores.

Cheating cases have been documented in at least 40 states and Washington, D.C., in the past five years, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit that looks critically at standardized test practices. Atlanta’s scandal is believed to be the largest in both scope and severity of criminal charges.

“Generally, when teachers and school administrators are found to have cheated, they are allowed to resign their positions and/or turn in their licenses with no further punishment beyond loss of employment,” said Bob Schaeffer, spokesman for the center. “Most investigations are done by state regulatory bodies, (such as board of education staff) not law enforcement agencies.”

Manny Arora, a former Fulton County prosecutor who is now a defense attorney with several high-profile former clients, believes Judge Jerry Baxter will sentence the convicted educators to prison but not the maximum, because of the misdemeanor plea deals other educators took instead of risking a trial.

“There’s got to be a hammer here,” Arora said.

The Atlanta case seems to be drawing out very different opinions about what should happen to the convicted educators.

Chicago-based Boyce Watkins, who posts YouTube videos geared toward black audiences, put together 17 minutes of comments about the APS trial that have been viewed more than 10,000 times. He said the educators were chasing “meaningless” measuring sticks like No Child Left Behind and said America’s education system “is the real criminal in all of this.

“I don’t understand for one second why you would give a damn schoolteacher five to 20 years in prison unless they molested someone, unless they shot somebody, unless they robbed a bank. That’s what state prisons are for,” Watkins said in the video. “They’re not supposed to be for schoolteachers who maybe pressured other teachers into erasing some answers on a standardized test.”

Richard Quartarone, co-president of the Southeast Atlanta Communities for Schools, an advocacy group in Atlanta’s Maynard Jackson High School cluster, in which cheating occurred, believes prison is necessary for those convicted. By cheating, he said, the educators reinforced negative perceptions that students cannot succeed.

“An entire generation lost the opportunity for a public education,” said Quartarone, who has two sons in a charter school under APS. “If there is anything that is more frustrating, I don’t know what is.”

On Tuesday, hundreds of Atlantans filled the pews of First Iconium Baptist Church in southeast Atlanta for a prayer vigil for the convicted educators. They were outraged that teachers could go to prison while those who criminally profited from the financial crisis years ago are free. Moore, the retired judge, was one of the speakers. She thinks the educators felt pressured to ensure their students did well.

“We’re not talking about mobsters,” she told the audience. “We’re not talking about gangs.”

Martin was there, too. She said she came to pray for the children affected by the scandal.

Martin said she has observed greater sympathy for the convicted former educators on Atlanta’s south side, where much of the cheating occurred. She doesn’t understand the calls for leniency.

“I just cannot fathom that,” she said.

Quartarone, a fourth-generation Atlantan, hopes the sentencing will end the debate about what penalty was best for the educators and another discussion will continue: How does Atlanta move forward from the scandal?

“I think there are a lot of important lessons. I think we’ve learned many of them,” he said. “I see activism and action that has brought people from the north, south, east and west side together in a way I haven’t seen before, and that’s exciting.”

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