The complicated role of race in the APS case

Was race a factor in the prosecutions of the 35 educators indicted in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial?

That question has reverberated for weeks in the national consciousness, including on, in which a scholar who did her graduate work at Emory equated the prosecutions to "criminalizing black teachers."

The observation left some Atlantans nodding their heads in agreement and others shaking their heads in dismay.

It seems clear that race did play a role in the APS case, but it’s less clear what role it played. The defendants were black, as were the prosecutors, most of the witnesses and most of the affected children. The optics are distressing, but this story is more complex than the optics suggest.

Atlanta schools remain deeply segregated. In seven of 11 school attendance clusters (counting alternative and charter schools as clusters), the percentage of white students is 0. In an eighth, it is 5 percent. All but a handful of the white students go to just two high schools – Grady and North Atlanta — and the elementary and middle schools that feed them.

To the south of those affluent precincts, many students start school with two strikes against them: they live in poverty, and their parents have relatively low educational attainment. Income and parents' education are widely believed to be the most influential factors in a child's academic performance.

These kids “were being left behind before the cheating scandal,” said Joycelyn Wilson, an APS graduate. Wilson has been watching the case from her office at Virginia Tech, where she teaches a course called Schooling in American Society. “We had teachers who were trying to get them to perform at grade level although they were behind. The larger issue is systemic.”

This was precisely her point, said Dr. Brittney Cooper, who authored the Salon commentary and now teaches at Rutgers. Cooper wasn’t suggesting that the investigation targeted black educators out of racial animus. She was arguing that black kids and their teachers are often trapped in an educational system that is stacked against them, and that pressuring teachers to raise test scores only compounds the harm.

Former Atlanta mayor and U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, who testified on behalf of the accused teachers, also decried the emphasis on standardized tests.

“What No Child Left Behind did was take money from the poor and give it to the testing company,” he said. “The crisis is, in education they are blaming the poorest teachers who are teaching the poorest students.”

The Atlanta Compromise

More than 40 years ago, in what was called the Atlanta Compromise, the NAACP and black plaintiffs in a desegregation lawsuit against the district agreed to scale back integration efforts in return for getting blacks in top administrative posts.

“Everybody who was a top official in the school system in 1972 was white except one guy, and he didn’t even have an office,” said Lonnie King, who as head of the local NAACP brokered that deal. “The school system was getting darker and darker, and whites were running everything. I took the position that we needed more blacks in leadership positions.”

Soon thereafter, King was out of a job; the national NAACP disapproved of his strategy and relieved him of his post.

He left Atlanta, only returning decades later. When he looked at how APS students were faring under the leadership of Superintendent Beverly Hall, he sensed that something was amiss. “I grew up in this town and I know this system pretty well,” King said. “When I looked at the data – in 2006 – I thought Beverly Hall was cooking the books.”

Back in the ’70s, he said, it never occurred to him that black educators might put their own jobs ahead of the welfare of their students. “I was naive.”

Still, he doesn’t regret the Atlanta Compromise. “We did get unprecedented access to control budgets, outcomes and testing. In that sense, it is not a failure. But when Beverly Hall came in, incentives took precedent over education of the children.”

Another lawsuit, filed on the heels of the compromise, sought to force integration on a regional basis, without regard for county or school district lines. It ultimately failed, although the Supreme Court recognized that the area was strongly segregated on racial lines, largely as a result of deliberate actions by local governments and others in power.

‘Substantial variations across schools’

Numbers never tell the whole story, but they are a good place to start. A couple of years ago, APS commissioned researchers at Georgia State to perform an “equity audit.” It looked at the demographics of the area served by APS, the student population, how the district allocated its resources and some measures of teacher and student performance.

The study found “substantial variations across schools” on teacher quality, academic programs, student achievement, financial resources (particularly PTA and foundation funds), even playgrounds.

Within APS’ boundaries, 40 percent of residents are white. But only 15 percent of students attending APS schools are white, suggesting that many white parents (as well as some black ones) send their kids to private schools.

In the Grady cluster, 45 percent of students are white, and in the North Atlanta cluster, 48 percent. Those clusters also show by far the highest incomes (more than one-third of households make $100,000-plus) and the highest educational attainment among adults (upwards of two-thirds have college degrees).

Many of those factors are beyond educators’ control. When it comes to how the district allocates its resources and deals with students, differences persist, but they don’t all cut one way.

APS spends about $8,000 a year per student on instruction, according to figures compiled by the Georgia Department of Education.That’s considerably more than the nearby suburban districts — a typical pattern, driven partly by federal funding formulas.

‘We need to quit pretending’

Within APS, the district spends moderately more per student in the clusters with the most eonomically disadvantaged kids. The issue, said Dr. C. Kevin Fortner, the lead GSU researcher on the equity audit, is this: given how far behind many of them are, should the district pour an even greater share of its resources into educating them?

It’s a question that bedevils urban school systems across the country, he said. And it’s politically charged: parents in areas that resemble the Grady and North Atlanta clusters can get affronted if too many resources are diverted elsewhere.

“The answers don’t get any easier,” Fortner said. “All school districts need to think about redistribution, not just of money but of the best people.”

The audit found modest differences in experience levels of teachers and principals in the various APS clusters, with Grady and North Atlanta enjoying an advantage. To reverse that pattern, should teachers be paid a lot more to teach in the schools where kids are farthest behind?

Sorting out such matters “is going to take some bravery and some creative thinking,” Fortner said.

And schools face an even bigger challenge, he said: “We need to quit pretending that schools are going to overcome, by themselves, the inequities in society.”

Being realistic doesn’t mean giving up on the kids, he said. “We should have the highest expectations as far as a commitment to educate every child.”

But insisting, as a starting point, that schools can be expected to overcome even the most extreme deficits is simply dishonest, Fortner said. “Even the best schools are not equipped to overcome severe poverty or abuse.”