Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Show trial ends with prison for educators who wouldn't confess

It was a final act straight out of The Crucible, Arthur Miller's McCarthy-era recounting of the Salem Witch-Hunt.

On April 14, ten Black Atlanta educators stood before white Fulton County Judge Jerry Baxter for sentencing. They had been found guilty of violating the state's "Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations" law, a local version of the super-conspiracy statute pushed by Richard Nixon that --supposedly-- applied only to mafia dons, drug dealers and hit men.

In an "only in America" Alice-In-Wonderland moment, two of those already found guilty made a post-conviction deal with the prosecutor. In exchange for not appealing the verdict and publicly confessing their sins, they received slap-on-the-wrist sentences instead of prison. One got a year-long 7:00PM-7:00AM at-home curfew, plus probation. The other, about 50 days of weekend detention, and probation.

As for the rest, Judge Baxter said, “All I want for many of these people is to just take some responsibility, but they refuse. They refuse."

So as punishment for the refusal, three of the educators were sentenced to 20 years, seven to be served in prison, the rest on probation, and $25,000 in fines. The rest received five-year sentences, with one or two to be served in prison. Sentencing was postponed for one teacher who had just had a baby.

The substance of the crime was that Atlanta educators has either given the answers to students during standardized tests or erased wrong answers on answer cards and filled in correct ones after the test.

I'm not sure if there is a law against that, but those actions were not what they were accused of. The main charge was the RICO one of being part of a criminal organization -- in essence, conspiracy. Of the twelve who went to trial, eleven were found guilty of this so-called "racketeering." One was found innocent of all charges.

In the best Moscow Trials fashion, they were tried en masse, instead of individually, even though they weren't accused of doing something together, just of being in an unspoken, implicit, de facto conspiracy.

The one person who tied them all together was Beverly Hall, head of Atlanta schools for more than a decade. According to the official accounts, Hall was a data driven despot who, through relentless pressure for ever-higher standardized test scores, set the cheating in motion. This, the state insisted, created the conspiracy that was a "corrupt organization," allowing the prosecutor to threaten draconian punishment under a vague and sweeping statute.

Hall was to be the main defendant in the trial that started eight months ago, but she couldn't be tried as she was undergoing cancer treatment. She died before the trial was over in March.

Much of the testimony against the educators was obtained by what is technically known in the legal biz as "subornation of perjury" -- but only when someone who is not a prosecutor does it. It means offering a witness "anything of value" in exchange for their testimony, even if that testimony is true. And for you and me, it is a felony.

What did the prosecutor offer witnesses that fit the category of "anything of value?" Well, total immunity or –for the majority of those indicted-- dropping 20-year-prison-sentence RICO counts if the accused pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor with no jail time ... provided you testify against others.

In this case, it is a matter of public record that nearly 200 educator-"cheaters" were identified, and more than 80 admitted to taking steps to improperly raise scores. Many were threatened with prosecution and a total of 35 indicted, including these defendants. A majority of those indicted cut deals, pleading guilty to misdemeanor false statement or obstruction charges.

The sort of cheating that went on in Atlanta is not unique. According to the Government Accountability Office, 40 states reported allegations of standardized test cheating for the school years 2010-11 and 2011-12. Thirty three confirmed at least one instance of cheating; 32 said they invalidated at least some test scores as a result.

This cheating is the result of the 2001 bipartisan "No child left behind" federal takeover of local education. It requires all of a school's students to reach at least the same minimum score in standardized tests -- without, however, addressing any of the social, economic and political factors that impact testing results. There are mounting severe and disruptive penalties for each year a school fails, so principals and teachers are getting penalized and even fired if their students have low test scores. The quite foreseeable and well-nigh inevitable result was doctoring the test performance.

Atlanta's is said to be the nation's biggest test cheating scandal, but if so, that may well be because the rest have not been investigated. A USA Today analysis in 2011 cast suspicion on more than 100 Washington, DC, public schools, compared to the 44 involved in Atlanta. But unlike in Georgia, there was no criminal investigation.

The Atlanta teachers were singled out for reprisal by the state's Republican governor, who ordered a multi-million dollar Georgia Bureau of Investigations probe after a statistical analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution suggested cheating was going on.

The final report from the investigation found widespread cheating driven by unrealistic test result targets from the district backed by threats and actual reprisals against teachers and administrators, creating "a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation ... throughout the district." Those who tried to report the cheating were ignored and suffered reprisals.

I wish it could be said the governor's order for a state investigation was driven by concern for the students and their education, but I do not believe it. A big reason was to counter opposition to the governor's cuts in the state education budget. Another was to boost the privatization of education through charter schools.

But the biggest one is simply because Georgia politics revolves around race, usually disguised as "urban versus rural" or "metro Atlanta" against the rest of the state and so on.

So, for example, as the trial was winding down, the state legislature approved a plan to create an “opportunity school district” directly under the governor that would take over "failing" schools, stripping elected school boards of control. Unsaid but understood by everyone involved that the targets will be minority schools, especially Black ones, and the real aim is privatization, the creation of more charter schools.

The area’s main news organization, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, detonated the scandal through investigative reports in 2009 and followed it closely. Systematically it covered up the racial aspect of the case. But after the sentencing, AJC reporter Bill Torpy finally lifted the veil:

"Race has always lurked in the wings of this recent public morality tale. All 35 educators indicted were black, as anyone who saw the mugshots in the media knows." But you had to have seen the mugshots, because the newspaper and most other media never mentioned it.

Torpy was recently minted as some sort of star journalist, so he gets to write folksy first-person commentaries. Here is some more of what he wrote:

"Monday morning, I was in the parking lot across from the Fulton County courthouse when a former co-worker remarked, via Facebook, that she was 'struck by the racial divide' on whether the convicted educators in the Atlanta schools cheating trial should get locked up….

"'Most black commenters believe the teachers may have done wrong but don’t deserve prison. Most white commenters believe the opposite,' my old colleague wrote. 'Like the OJ and Rodney King cases, it’s very revealing.'"

Perhaps even more revealing was Torpy's own take on the sentencing: "I had noted earlier that they rolled the dice and lost. They went to trial, were found guilty and were likely headed to prison. That’s how it works. If they got the same probation deals as those who fessed up before the trial, I reasoned, then why make deals in the first place? The judge warned them — repeatedly — about it." Torpy is white, as anyone who reads his musings knows, and not just because his mugshot accompanies every one, if you're a person of color.

But by and large, the dozens of teachers and principals caught up in the Atlanta scandal were not criminals but victims, along with the children. Yes, they did quietly point out to some children the right answer during the tests, or erase a wrong answer and fill in the right one afterwards.

But as former Atlanta mayor and civil rights movement leader Andrew Young told Judge Baxter, the real problem is the high-stakes testing madness imposed by politicians and bureaucrats. “We have messed up education so much that tests and grades do not make you educated,” Young said. “I think these teachers got caught in a trap. Take this mess and make a good thing out of it.”

Young also quoted Martin Luther King. "When people are placed in darkness, crimes will be committed. The guilty are those who created the darkness."

And Young was not the only one protesting. It was ignored elsewhere in the media, but Torpy noted, "As I left my car to walk to the courthouse Monday, I heard a chant bouncing off the buildings: 'Let the teachers go! Let the teachers go!'

"It was an old-style Atlanta rally," Torpy added, "with all the old-line agitators — the Rev. Timothy McDonald, Joe Beasley, John Evans — and about 75 others outside on the steps." And even old-style Atlanta snarking by white reporters.

It would be nice to imagine you could find a corps of incorruptible teachers who would gladly fall on their swords, sacrifice their careers but do what is right against a regime of repression and retribution imposed by the head of the school system. But Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall was said to be even more monomaniacal about standardized test results than the federal law. The fate of the first few Don Quixotes who tried to resist served as an object lesson to the rest about the futility of tilting at windmills. As it was, 90% of Atlanta school principals were removed during her tenure.

And resistance might have been easier if the organizations that supposedly represent the teachers could be counted to stand up for their members. But both were present at the sentencing, and backed the vindictive judge.

"They should have taken the deal," said Verdaillia Turner, head of both the Atlanta and Georgia federation of teachers. "I have no idea why these folks were so hardheaded."

Apparently she wasn't listening when Dana Evans responded to Judge Baxter's pleading for capitulation. He said her conviction was "probably the biggest tragedy of all of them … I want to tell you I consider you a wonderful educator, and that is what makes it so sad."

Evans's reply: "I know you may want to hear an admission of guilt, but I can’t do that because it’s not the truth." After being freed on an appeals bond she told reporters, "I was surprised by the verdict. I couldn’t fathom how they (the jurors) could come to that decision … that I knowingly and willingly was involved in a conspiracy."

According to an NBC report, however, the union official was, in essence, a prosecution aide. Turner "knows the value of taking a deal. She helped dozens of members arrange for lenient punishment in return for admitting their roles early on in the investigation" and, of course, throwing the colleagues the prosecutors chose as scapegoats under the bus, although NBC forgot that part.

"Turner said 48 of her members were 'disposed of' before the trial, and most have 'landed on their feet,' some in education jobs, others out of the industry."

Georgia's other teacher's group, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, also piled on. The sentences were "fairly harsh," said the group's mouthpiece, Tim Callahan. But "certainly a wrong had been done, and needed to be exposed, and people needed to pay the price."

What some people will do for 30 pieces of silver.

Apart from rampant racism in what they used to claim was "the city too busy to hate," what the Atlanta scandal showed was the wholesale degradation of the school system through the infiltration of America's corrupt corporate culture. It is there --not among the teachers-- that you will find Beverly Hall's real co-conspirators: in the chamber of commerce; in its pliant school board; in famous foundations like the Gates foundation that have pushed for corporate education reform; and, of course, among the bipartisan political racketeers.

The judge's demand for capitulation in exchange for lenient sentences is profoundly corrupt and unfair. It shows that to all intents and purposes, the constitutional guarantee of due process of law is no more. The right to a trial, to defend yourself, and to appeal a guilty verdict has been abolished. Because if you can be punished with years in prison for exercising a right, and rewarded for abandoning it, then it is no longer a right.

But the most disturbing thing of all is that the demand for capitulation and confession has long been a hallmark of police states and totalitarian dictatorships. What the authorities want most of all is to set an example: resistance is futile, no one can stand up to the state.

That is why by standing up and saying no to the state's demand for capitulation, these educators are teaching the most important lesson of all.

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