Special report: APS can’t close the book on cheating scandal just yet

The Editorial Board's Opinion: Gov. Nathan Deal, Atlanta school board members and interim superintendent Erroll B. Davis still have much to do before the school system can move on.

Last week’s release of a comprehensive, unflinching report on up to a decade’s worth of cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test at APS confirmed yet again what we at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution have suspected for more than two years. Which is that a sorry subset of APS staff engaged in a long-running pattern of pervasive cheating. Their actions injured children for the benefit of adults. These cheaters stood to gain job security or bonuses within a system obsessively focused on achieving good numbers, no matter the cost to integrity or ethics. The result was a despicable robbery of students’ right to get the help they needed, as well as a fleecing of taxpayers who pay for public education.

Time and again, AJC reporters exposed questionable test performance at too many schools. The odds that these gains occurred without adults gaming the system — cheating — were far too long to be believed by even those who had a stake in the outcome. Even a blue ribbon commission’s 2010 report trumpeted by Hall as showing that “there is no orchestrated cheating in Atlanta Public Schools” mentioned odds of one in a “quadrillion” or “quintillion” that some test events would have occurred naturally.

As this newspaper continued to report on CRCT irregularities, APS leadership steadfastly persisted in a pattern of denials backed by outright, and perhaps even illegal, deceptions. The district even brought on a consultant to, in effect, disprove the AJC’s work that was apparently causing so much heartburn at APS. Not surprisingly, the district later denied that a copy of that consultant’s report even existed within its purview. Last week’s findings confirmed that the report, which largely exonerated our work, had in fact been received and subsequently deleted from Hall’s computer.

Such duplicity was part and parcel of APS’ pattern of operation during Hall’s tenure. The CRCT report says that, “On multiple occasions, APS administrators attempted to explain away evidence of cheating.”

The power of truth and the pungent scent of likely wrongdoing picked up by others prevented district officials from getting away with their cover-up.

This work of discovery and disinfection must continue. The AJC will keep asking tough questions and hold leaders accountable, for there remains much to be done. Last week’s release of the report, wisely commissioned by former Gov. Sonny Perdue a year ago, should not be the end of public accountability for this sordid, sad mess. The matter must be seen through to a logical, just and fair conclusion.

For starters, district attorneys in DeKalb, Fulton and Douglas counties should work quickly to determine whether criminal charges are warranted. Given that it’s a felony to willfully destroy documents or lie to investigators, the possibility of criminal action against the ringleaders of APS’ scheming does not seem unreasonable or an overreach of prosecutorial authority.

At a news conference last week, Gov. Nathan Deal seemed eager to be done with the matter by handing it off to prosecutors. The governor, himself a lawyer, even initially declined to make the full report public. Within hours, Attorney General Sam Olens had approved its release. Olens rightly found that this taxpayer-funded work should be shared with taxpayers.

Deal must not drop the APS matter now. He should demonstrate the kind of fortitude he displayed in pushing the Atlanta Board of Education to get its act together, move past infighting and elect new leadership — a process made easier by the threat of board members’ possible removal from office. Deal’s continuing interest and state resources are needed to ensure accountability and oversight as APS is repaired.

A few blocks from the Gold Dome, the APS board and interim Superintendent Erroll B. Davis Jr. must also do the right things in coming days. They must forcefully resist the temptation to now focus solely on the future and downplay the past. The future for the majority of APS’ employees — the ethical ones — and the district’s children squarely depends on how Davis and the board handle the staffers implicated in the wide-ranging cheating scandal.

Implicated employees are legally and even morally entitled to due process and fair hearings. We support that wholeheartedly. We would also point out that moving beyond this disgraceful episode cannot happen without the district first following through on Davis’ promise that Atlanta’s schoolchildren will not again have to look upon the faces of those who failed them so terribly.

This group includes employees ranging from school-level staff on up through the executive ranks. The district cannot get past this sordid affair if tainted leaders or even the most-egregious rank-and-file cases remain on the payroll much longer. Davis should quickly institute whatever procedures are necessary to ensure that those found complicit in this scandal are nowhere near students when classes resume in August.

Alleviating the problems these workers caused will require courageous and stern action by Davis and the board. They must not flinch from their duties in this regard.

We’re pleased that Davis, during a board meeting Thursday, gave every indication he wants to do what’s necessary to set things right. Under Davis’ leadership, the district now stands a fighting chance at getting back to the tough work of educating youngsters. It was smart of the APS board last week to give him a year to repair the system. He may need every minute of the time allotted.

One avenue that must be explored is whether it is feasible to recoup money paid to reward gains now known to be fraudulent. Beverly Hall should be Exhibit A in this effort, recent retirement notwithstanding. In the private sector, executives found responsible for unscrupulous activity have forfeited bonuses or even been sent to prison.

The conclusions in last week’s report warrant an inquiry into whether it’s possible to claw back at least some of Hall’s performance pay or other compensation. Her attorney said last week that no direct evidence shows she knew of widespread cheating. Even if you buy that implausible thesis, it’s beyond argument that Hall failed miserably as a manager and leader. The report states that “Dr. Hall and her cabinet knew or should have known that cheating was occurring on the CRCT. For years, they disregarded warning signs or failed to see them. If they failed to see the warnings, they were not the leaders they claimed to be. And if they disregarded them, it was a gross and willful breach of their duty to the children of Atlanta.”

Either scenario represents nothing less than a fraud foisted upon the parents, taxpayers and, worst of all, the children of Atlanta. Impressionable youngsters were subjected to the horrible life lesson of watching educators — who should set an example second only to parents or clergy — actively conspire to cheat their way to “success” as defined at APS. These children will live with the aftermath of this tragic miseducation for the rest of their lives.

Atlanta Public Schools has a long journey ahead to regain the public’s trust and respect. We all deserved better, especially the children. It’s shameful that we did not get it.

Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board

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