De­bate brews over sen­tenc­ing of APS ed­u­ca­tors

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - FRONT PAGE - By Eric Stir­gus es­tir­gus@ajc.com and Jaime Sar­rio jsar­rio@ajc.com

Abby Martin and Thelma Wy­att Cum­mings Moore both know the law and will be closely watch­ing to­day when 10 for­mer ed­u­ca­tors are sen­tenced for their roles in the At­lanta Public Schools testcheat­ing 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 test­tam­per­ing bub­ble up across the coun­try.

In El Paso, Texas, 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-per­form- ing 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 test­tam­per­ing, 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 an- swers 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 fourth­gen­er­a­tion 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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