Teachers in cheating probe face poor job prospects

Several Atlanta educators whose teaching certificates were suspended as a result of cheating accusations are eligible to teach again. Whether any school would hire them is another story.

Nine former teachers have completed their suspensions, but they’re left with black marks on their permanent records that any school system in the nation can find. Another 126 educators either have cases pending or are serving two-year suspensions that in most cases end next June.

Educators whose certificates are suspended won’t be able to flee Georgia to seek teaching work elsewhere in the country, said Kelly Henson, executive secretary for the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.

“Could they get a job in education? Possibly,” Henson said.

But those whose certification has been revoked or suspended cannot get a job for which certification is required, including teacher and administrator posts, Henson said, because “no matter what state you go to, this information is going to be available to both employers and certification officials.” A database run by a national certification organization tracks sanctions against teachers.

Even after teachers complete their suspensions, they may have a hard time getting hired by school districts that fear parent outrage over Atlanta’s cheating scandal.

Richard Quartarone, a parent with two children in Atlanta Public Schools, said he wouldn’t be comfortable with teachers returning to school after serving their suspensions because of the damage they did to students’ education by handing them high scores instead of conferring essential knowledge.

“This is a big deal, and I never want to overlook that when we’re talking about the cheating scandal,” said Quartarone, whose sons are in second grade and pre-k. “It’s very serious, it’s very personal, and it’s very long-term.”

The taint of Atlanta’s cheating may prevent those accused from ever teaching again, said Mike McGonigle, general counsel for the Georgia Association of Educators.

“It raises a red flag to a potential employer, and it’s extremely difficult and often career-ending,” McGonigle said.

It all began with an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis that found suspicious standardized test score changes on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, which prompted investigations and national headlines about cheating.

A 2011 state investigation accused teachers of erasing students’ incorrect answers, prompting them to check their work or pointing to correct answers. Those allegations formed the basis of sanctions on their certifications.

Out of 159 Atlanta educators whose cases have been considered so far, the standards commission has recommended suspensions or revocations for all but six, whose cases were dismissed. The commission has open investigations into seven former APS employees who were criminally charged last month, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall.

Forty-four Atlanta educators who were in leadership positions had their certifications revoked, and teachers generally received two-year suspensions, Henson said. Most of the nine teachers whose suspensions have already ended cooperated with investigations and negotiated shorter punishments of between 40 and 90 days. In one case, a teacher received a less severe suspension because she settled her case early in the process.

At least 110 educators have appealed their sanctions, but none of those appeals has moved forward while the attorney general’s office waits for Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard’s office to turn over evidence in their cases. A Fulton County grand jury indicted 35 former Atlanta educators last month.

In the meantime, those educators would have a hard time finding work because their certifications include a note saying they face pending investigations, McGonigle said.

Former third-grade teacher Idalina Couto, who has repeatedly asserted she didn’t cheat, said her career in education has been ruined. A state investigation accused her of prompting students to reread questions answered incorrectly and of explaining questions that students couldn’t understand. Couto denied the accusations.

She lost her job after a tribunal in which she argued that an investigator had misrepresented her statements, and she appealed the commission’s recommendation of a two-year suspension of her license. She’s been waiting nearly two years for her appeal to be considered.

“I’ve done nothing wrong, but I’m still not in the classroom and there’s a great possibility of me not being able to teach again,” said Couto, who worked at Jones Elementary. “This whole thing has been a nightmare.”

Atlanta’s reputation for cheating followed at least two administrators who had trouble securing jobs elsewhere.

Former Human Resources Director Millicent Few, who was among those indicted last month, lost a consulting job in Connecticut last year after the school district there learned of the Georgia investigation’s accusations that she tried to cover up cheating. Former Deputy Superintendent Kathy Augustine, who wasn’t indicted, found work as a superintendent of a suburban Dallas district but resigned after the school board there learned of her alleged involvement in the case.

Among the educators who face criminal charges, 21 are appealing their suspensions or revocations, six accepted sanctions, seven face open investigations and one is not being investigated, according to the standards commission.

In all, the commission received 185 cases that arose from the state investigation into cheating. The commission hasn’t yet made a recommendation for sanctions in 26 of those cases.

Eventually, teachers who have been fired by APS and punished by the standards commission could remove the stain of the cheating scandal from their careers if they’re successful in their appeals, said attorney Mel Goldstein, who has represented 25 educators involved, including two who were criminally charged.

Appeals will be forwarded from the attorney general’s office to an administrative law judge after the district attorney’s office releases evidence in their cases.

“They’re having a tough time because of all the publicity involved in this case,” Goldstein said. “Our clients will get a much fairer shake in their appeals.”

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