A parade of Atlanta educators trooped to the county jail beginning in the early hours of Tuesday morning and surrendered to officials on criminal charges stemming what is believed to be the biggest testing scandal in American education.
By early morning, at least four of the 35 teachers, principals and school officials had turned themselves in and were expected to post bonds ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars to more than $1 million. All were named in a 65-count indictment released last week by Fulton County Dist. Atty. Paul L. Howard Jr.
“The four principal crimes that are charged in the indictment are the statements and writings, false swearings, theft by taking, and influencing witnesses,” he told reporters. The maximum penalty, if convicted, could be as high as 20 years in prison for most defendants.
Still to be heard from is Beverly Hall, Atlanta's retired school superintendent. On her watch the hard-pressed school district earned a national reputation for improving test scores. She was also given performance bonuses totaling more than $500,000 for her efforts.
Investigators allege she pressured teachers and principals to cheat, and punished those who refused to bend the rules. A grand jury recommended her bail be set at $7.5 million. She faces up to 45 years in prison.
Hall has denied all of the charges
The Atlanta scandal is considered the largest to hit a school district in recent years. About 200 educators have admitted to a variety of improprieties, including tampering with students' standardized tests, erasing wrong answers and correcting them by inserting the correct ones. The goal was to increase test scores and it apparently worked: At one middle school, 86% of eighth-graders scored proficient in math, compared to 24% a year earlier.
While the Atlanta cheating effort seems to be the largest, charges have surfaced in more than two dozen districts since the federal No Child Left Behind law was signed in 2001. The law penalized low-testing school districts.
“We don’t condone cheating, but when you have high-stakes testing, which are one-shot deals that don’t tell you whether a child is going to fail or succeed, the whole setup in terms of No Child Left Behind was unfair to children, unfair to educators,” Verdaillia Turner, president of the Georgia Federation of Teachers said to MSNBC on Monday.
The first educator to appear at the jail was Tameka Goodson, a former school improvement specialist at Kennedy Middle School, who walked into the jail at about 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, escorted by her attorney, Raymond Lail.
“She's been anxious about this, of course, since she's heard about this. [She's] very distraught over it,” Lail told television reporters. “It's the closest she's ever been to a jail in her life.”
Goodson's bond was set at $200,000.
Just before 6 a.m., Donald Bullock surrendered. He's a former testing coordinator at Usher Collier Heights Elementary. Bullock’s bond was set at $1 million.
An hour later, Theresia Copeland walked into the jail. Copeland is a former testing coordinator at Benteen Elementary School and her bail was also set at $1 million.