FILE - In this 2013 photo, a second grader works through a math lesson as part of Atlanta Public School's after-school remediation program.
FILE - In this 2013 photo, a second grader works through a math lesson as part of Atlanta Public School's after-school remediation program.

The cheating scandal in Atlanta’s public schools is nearing its conclusion, with several former educators facing prison time.  Advocates say the case sent a loud message to those who would commit fraud with student test scores in the future.

In 2008, after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper first uncovered evidence of widespread cheating in Atlanta’s public schools, then governor Sonny Perdue appointed a team led by former Georgia attorney general Michael Bowers to investigate the case.

More than 50 investigators and lawyers participated in the state inquiry, which led to criminal charges against 35 educators, more than 20 of whom have since pleaded guilty.

The 11-month investigation found 44 Atlanta public schools engaged in serious cheating behavior from 2005 to 2009, according to Bowers.

Roughly 180 school staff members were implicated, including 38 principals. The scandal, in which teachers modified student answers on standardized tests, is regarded as the largest instance of cheating in U.S. public schools in a generation.

“They directed erasures on test that the kids had taken, making the erasures themselves, directing the children to make erasures where the teachers knew the answers and passed those answers along to the children,” Bowers said.

In other cases, “they made the erasures after the children had taken the test so their children would look good and they themselves - the teachers - would look good in terms of the test results,” he added.

Disgraced former Atlanta public school superintendent Beverly Hall, who died last month, had threatened that teachers and staff must continually improve student scores if they wanted to keep their jobs.

That resulted in some teachers cheating in order to survive, receive bonuses and move up to higher positions.

The case is not only about children’s education, but teachers’ integrity.

Criminal litigation

Prosecutors pursued the case in 2013, after a Fulton County grand jury indicted the 35 teachers. But the situation is unusual.

“Professional misconduct like this test cheating business is usually handled with disciplinary measures. It is very, very unusual to have teachers brought into a criminal process the way this case did,” said University of Georgia professor emeritus Ronald Carlson.

Bowers said the decision to indict was the right call, since the teachers deprived of a large number of the most vulnerable children of their education rights.

“I think it was absolutely appropriate for the state to have taken strong action to correct this and mete out strong punishment to those who were responsible,” he said.

In 2012, the Georgia Department of Education released a list of the 78 worst public schools in the state. Nearly half are from the Atlanta metro area, with most students from lower income families, and lower grades and a lower graduation rate.

Defense case

The jury began to deliberate the case earlier this month after 21 defendants made a plea deal admitting guilt. Others decided to take their chances with the jury.

Atlanta lawyer Bob Rubin represents one of the defendents, former primary school principal Dana Evans. He denied all the allegations against his client.

“Our position is that the people who said Dana Evans knew there was cheating and didn’t do anything about it all had an agenda against her because she had reprimanded them for being bad teachers and not doing their job well. That’s why they came into court and told lies about her,” Rubin said.

Rubin noted that the 12-person jury included six African-Americans, five whites and one Hispanic.

He said the ratio is not appropriate because the people were selected from a 600-candidate jury pool that he said was over-represented with white citizens.  

“Under our constitution, the jury must be a fair cross section of the community, looking at the percentages of whites, blacks and Hispanics and other races and genders and things like that. In this case, there was a problem with the composition of the jury pool,” Rubin said.

Judge dissatisfied

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter encouraged the indicted teachers and faculty to make the plea deal.

Shortly before the verdict, two others accepted the deals.  But the rest took their chances with the jury and were found guilty.

Judge Baxter fined and sentenced the eight educators to prison last week, giving three senior administrators seven years each.

Others must perform thousands of hours of community service.

Some complained the sentencing was too heavy, and on Monday Judge Baxter appeared ready to reconsider the stiff sentences.

But he decried those teachers unwilling to take responsibility.

“Everybody starts crying about these educators. This was not a victimless crime that occurred," Baxter said.

Still, he agreed to give all defendants the benefit of the doubt for making a first-time mistake, meaning all records would be expunged after the sentences were carried out.

Fulton County prosecutor Paul Howard emphasized it was not their intention to send these people to jail.

He said teachers were given the chance to plead guilty, apologize and give up appeals, but they rejected these opportunities.

Federal Notice

The developments have not gone unnoticed in Washington.

“The verdict in the Atlanta test cheating scandal addresses a sad chapter in the history of Atlanta Public Schools. The focus of education should always be on what’s best for students,” said U.S. Department of Education Press Secretary Dorie Nolt in an email to VOA.

“State and city leaders, parents and community members, deserve credit for their work to restore integrity to Atlanta’s schools and to regain the trust of the community. We especially recognize the thousands of Atlanta teachers, administrators and employees who continue to work hard and serve students well while the community heals,” she continued.

The announcement also pointed out that state and city officials, parents and community members did a great job to improve the Atlanta public schools’ integrity. Thousands of teachers who are still working hard to help students should receive special recognition.

“Handing down jail terms to teachers, administrators and school officials sends a message across the country and maybe abroad that this kind of cheating in order to get  promotions, or to retain jobs or to get bonuses will not be tolerated,” Carlson said.