Atlanta, we have a problem

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Atlanta_WeHaveAProblem1390x837I was going to ignore Atlanta. The troubling news of hefty prison sentences lobbed at public school teachers for their part in America's largest public education cheating scandal looked too messy for me. It's embarrassing.  My first response was "I just can't." But after seeing one too many articles and blog posts and social media posts intent on missing the point - that the children of Atlanta got a raw deal from their educators and entrusted education leaders - there is just no way to be a bystander anymore. When I decided to write something it was going to be curt. Then I did it and too much flowed for one blog post so this will be the first of three posts.

For this post I ask you, the reader, to be concerned with the facts. Not the casting of characters. Not the broader issues of society. Not the million arguable features of school reform.

Just the facts man.

Reactionaries are suggesting these black "educators" were victims of a ruthless high stakes "testocracy" and an obsessive push to close gaps in test scores between white students and children of color. That is convenient, but untrue.

256,769,000 is the number of wrong-to-right erasures committed by a network of "educators." Some of these people had house parties where they replaced incorrect answers on student bubble sheets with correct answers. You might find that appalling if you weren't reading so many sympathy pieces on behalf of the rogue educators.

As Judge Jerry Baxter said, this "isn't a victimless crime." There was the devastating impact on students - almost entirely black - who did not receive interventions because their needs were hidden by artificially high test scores.

I refuse to get lost in the luxury of an argument about the fairness of sentences several educators received (20 years in jail for some) or the fact they were convicted by the prosecutorial use of legal instruments intended for organized crimes assumed to be more terrible than a cheating scandal. I'll say the educators drawing the craziest sentences were punished for displaying no mature ability to take responsibility for their actions like many of their colleagues who received much lighter sentences.

We ask our kids to make good choices, to be honest, and to admit when they are wrong. Adults should not be exempt from those demands, in fact, adults who lead children should be exemplars.

Judge Baxter said these bad actors were "at the top of the food chain." Not only were they aware of widespread cheating, they were actively "promoting" it to make themselves look good.

We should prioritize these children as if they matter. As if their minds deserve a system run by competent people of good character and a commitment to informed care. The students are the real victims, not the middle-class black folks who earn a living on the backs of poor kids children. These kids will never make it to the middle-class if the people we trust to run school districts continue to have colossal moral failures like this one.

Truth and consequences

If we want an honest discussion we should ask "what is the truth?," and "what should be the consequences?"

We should consult the public record and resist getting lost in the racial theater, the surface analysis, the meme-driven shortcut thinking of Facebook, and the union-driven politics aimed at inoculating teachers from ever being responsible for anything other than seeking improvements in their workplace conditions and incrementally swelling their benefits package.

Below you'll find two pieces of evidence that should illuminate the issues.

First, video of the sentencing hearing which showcases the issues that led to harsh sentences. It's a good drama with a few twists (like the fact that the Judge nearly handed out light sentences but the convicted educators balked).

Second, there is an investigative report from Georgia's Office of the Governor that is 800 pages resulting from over 2,100 interviews and the review of 800,000 documents.

The report finds that the cheating was driven from the highest levels, up to the office of the superintendent, Dr. Beverly Hall who passed away before being sentenced. Dr. Hall received a consultant's report suggesting cheating could be responsible for gains in test scores. It was deleted from her report and never released.

Investigators expected cooperation from the superintendent and her staff, but were stonewalled instead. "Many district officials we interviewed were not truthful," investigators say.

80% of Atlanta public schools were found to be cheating. In those schools it was 38 principals and 178 teachers responsible.

Some may read all of this and still see it as a case of occupational lynching, the targeting of black professionals for crimes that would receive lesser punishment were the accused not black. That misses the fact that the prosecutor, his legal team, jurors, and a stream of witnesses that testified against the convicted "educators" were black too. Like me they were probably appalled by the report's accusations of nepotism, sexual harassment, and falsification of records for student participation in special programs.

I'll go a step further and say this case provides a rare sighting of black middle-class privilege which often lives off the commodification of the poor. It also spotlights the danger of autocracy in large urban school districts, a place in the American work world that often is the best host for such privilege to thrive (few places are so unaccountable and profitable).

The Governor's report opens with this: "Thousands of school children were harmed by widespread cheating in the Atlanta Public School System (APS)."

Simple. Factual. Inescapable. Let's keep it all the way real.

In my next posts I will dig a little deeper into what I see as class and race unmentionables of this case. For now I ask that you draw your own conclusions from the video and report below.

Atlanta cheating investigation report by Chris Stewart