The world is filled with injustices. But today my sense of outrage is reserved for the prison sentences handed down for Atlanta educators convicted of altering student test scores.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter ordered 20-year sentences Tuesday for three of them, with the expectation that they will spend seven years in prison. Five others were sentenced to shorter prison terms and two got probation or home detention.
That’s right, 20-year sentences, with seven to serve. It’s what you might have gotten for killing someone in a slightly gentler and more forgiving era.
The teachers were found guilty of racketeering, an offense normally associated with organized crime. Baxter pronounced the maximum sentence even though the defendants had clean records and are clearly not a threat to cause violence to anyone.
Yes, cheating is wrong, even criminal. Atlanta parents deserve accurate information about whether their children are learning what they should. And it’s true that some educators may have benefited financially and by reputation – especially former Superintendent Beverly Hall, who was charged but died from cancer before she went to trial.
But as a New Yorker article last summer made heartbreakingly clear, teachers weren’t motivated solely by greed. They worried about losing their jobs if test scores were too low. And they worried most about their students, who faced the prospect of having their neighborhood schools shut down.
With a rigid system of rewards and punishments to boost test scores, Atlanta school officials were following a script that was written by politicians and policy advocates far from the trenches of urban schools. The educators, working in a corrupt system, committed corrupt acts – or so a jury found.
Tuesday’s sentencing wasn’t pretty a pretty sight. You had a white judge berating African-American defendants and attorneys and trying to bully them into admitting guilt and giving up their right to appeal the convictions and sentences.
Judge Baxter declared the cheating scandal “the sickest thing that’s ever happened in this town,” according to news reports. Let that sink in for a minute. Then recall that a recent report by the Equal Justice Initiative found there were 586 lynchings across Georgia between 1877 and 1950.
Thanks to Michelle Alexander and other scholars, we know African-Americans are much more likely than whites to be arrested and jailed for drug crimes, even though they are no more likely to use drugs.
As “Teacher Wars” author Dana Goldstein of the Marshall Project points out, there’s evidence that test cheating is widespread in American schools and that it’s more prevalent in schools that face closure or other sanctions because of low test scores. Rarely are cheaters caught. Almost never are they punished.
It’s a safe bet that teachers who cheat are no more or less diverse than the nation’s teaching force. Yet only educators of color are going to prison for cheating. Where have we seen this movie before?