A furious Atlanta judge had a message for the 10 public school teachers, principals and administrators who — after months of testimony — stood before him, convicted of participating in a widespread conspiracy to inflate students’ scores on state tests.
They had lost their jobs and their reputations. They had been handcuffed and hauled off to jail. But they hadn’t yet paid their debt for a crime he said cheated some of the city’s most vulnerable children by telling them that they were learning to read and do math when they were not.
“That’s what gets lost. Everyone starts crying about these educators. . . . There were thousands of children that were harmed in this thing,” Judge Jerry W. Baxter of Fulton County Superior Court said Tuesday. “This is not a victimless crime that occurred in this city.”
People who commit academic fraud, experts say, usually face little more than a wrist slap — a fine or a loss of professional licensure. But Baxter handed down relatively lengthy prison sentences — up to seven years, longer than some people get for violent crimes — in a case that has drawn widespread attention as the nation debates the amount and importance of standardized testing.
The case, arising from cheating revealed in 2009, highlights what critics of standardized testing argue is part of the downside of relying on the test results to evaluate teachers, principals and schools: Pressure to perform can lead people to cross the line when their jobs or merit pay are at stake. Baxter’s message to the Atlanta teachers was that there are consequences, that children can get hurt and someone must pay.
Baxter sentenced three defendants, all high-level school system administrators, to seven years in prison and 13 years on probation, plus 2,000 hours of community service and a $25,000 fine. The sentence was far harsher than prosecutors had requested.
Five others — former principals, assistant principals and teachers — were sentenced to either a year in prison and four years on probation or two years in prison and three on probation. They also must pay fines and perform community service.
Two defendants chose to negotiate lighter sentences in exchange for admitting their guilt, apologizing for their actions and waiving their rights to appeal. One must serve six months of weekends in the county jail; the other has been sentenced to a year of home confinement, meaning she must stay home from dusk until dawn but is otherwise free.
In a series of emotional exchanges with defense attorneys, Baxter seemed disgusted that more of the defendants hadn’t chosen to admit guilt in exchange for leniency. On Monday, he had urged all 10 defendants to accept a plea bargain, which he said would allow the community to begin to heal.
“Yesterday I said to everybody, ‘This is the time to search your soul,’ ” Baxter said Tuesday. “Nobody has taken any responsibility that I can see.”
The eight defendants who declined to negotiate their sentences are expected to appeal, which would cause the case to continue indefinitely.
Cheating has been proved or alleged in Washington, Philadelphia, and Camden, N.J., among other cities. In 2013, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said that officials in 40 states had reported cheating allegations in the previous two years and that officials in 33 had confirmed at least one instance of cheating.
Critics of standardized testing say cheating is a result of the consequences that policymakers have attached to scores, from closing schools for poor performance to offering merit bonuses to teachers whose students do well.
When the Atlanta educators were convicted this month, the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., said they were “victims of a corrupt education system,” and she called for leniency and no jail time.
“Teachers are under tremendous pressure to meet standards and ensure that students pass tests, even to the extent that their jobs, their livelihoods may be threatened,” King said in a statement.
But others, including many in the civil rights movement, defend standardized testing as crucial for ensuring that public schools serve all students, including poor and minority children.
“It’s true that there are too many tests and many of them are redundant and unnecessary. But the basic annual statewide assessments that provide comparable achievement data across a given state, that’s very important,” said Deborah Veney of the nonprofit Education Trust. “Without things like that, we have kids who are valedictorians and end up in remedial ed. That’s a justice issue.”
Atlanta’s cheating scandal stands out because of the pervasiveness of the problem and because of investigators’ aggressiveness in documenting it.
The Atlanta-Journal Constitution uncovered the scandal in 2009, and state investigators later concluded that nearly 200 educators had cheated in more than 40 Atlanta public schools. High-level administrators had ignored or covered up cheating allegations since at least 2005, the investigators said.
During the tests, educators gave correct answers aloud, pointed at the right answers in students’ test booklets or arranged seating so low-performing students could copy answers from high-performing peers. After the tests, teachers got together on weekends to change students’ answers, investigators found.
They attributed the cheating to a climate of fear and intimidation. Superintendent Beverly Hall promised to fire principals who failed to meet test-score targets, and principals passed that pressure on to teachers, a state investigative report said.
Thirty-five educators were indicted, including Hall. Many accepted plea deals. Hall, who maintained her innocence, died in March before facing trial.
Eleven educators were convicted April 1 of racketeering. One defendant gave birth on Saturday, according to the Journal-Constitution, and her sentencing has been set for August.
Many civil rights leaders and teachers called for leniency, and some wondered why black teachers in low-income neighborhoods faced racketeering charges when white Wall Street workers who were implicated in the subprime mortgage crisis did not.
Defendants’ relatives and friends pleaded for mercy during a four-hour sentencing hearing Monday, telling the judge that the educators were good people who had dedicated their lives to children.
Baxter acknowledged the educators’ good work, but he was unwavering.
“This is a really hard case,” he said before sentencing Dana Evans — a former principal who had been a middle school counselor to Baxter’s son — to prison for a year. “I believe that Dr. Evans was told about what was going on.”
Evans has denied knowing about the cheating and, therefore, couldn’t take a plea deal, said Robert G. Rubin, her attorney. “It’d be easier to just blow through a half-hearted apology, but she didn’t want to do that,” Rubin said. “She wants to speak the truth.”
Baxter said there are probably many others who contributed to the scandal but weren’t indicted. “This thing was pervasive,” he said. “It’s like the sickest thing that’s ever happened to this town.”