Atlanta school cheating scandal: The untold story of corporate greed and criminalization of teachers
As teacher strikes in Denver and Los Angeles join a wave of recent labor actions bringing attention to the plight of the American public school system, we take a fresh look at one of the largest public school scandals in U.S. history. Public schools in Atlanta, Georgia, were thrown into chaos in 2015 when 11 former educators were convicted in 2015 of racketeering and other charges for allegedly facilitating a massive cheating operation on standardized tests. Prosecutors said the teachers were forced to modify incorrect answers and students were even allowed to fix their responses during exams. The case has fueled criticism of the education system’s reliance on standardized testing, and elicited calls of racism. Thirty-four of the 35 educators indicted in the scandal were African-American. We speak with Shani Robinson, one of the 11 convicted teachers, who has written a new book on the cheating scandal with journalist Anna Simonton. It’s titled “None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators.”
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, we turn now to the fight for public education, as the teachers’ strike in Denver heads into its third day. District and union negotiators worked late into the night Tuesday on a potential agreement, including a base salary of $45,800 a year for educators. That would be a $2,500 boost from their expected pay for 2019-’20 school year. But the Denver Classroom Teachers Association is still demanding the district rely less on bonuses and instead focus on financial security for educators.
Denver’s teachers are striking for the first time in a quarter of a century. Their walkout comes just weeks after an historic 6-day teachers’ strike in Los Angeles ended with victory for educators demanding smaller class sizes and higher wages. The actions are the latest in a wave of teachers’ strikes that began last year in Republican-controlled states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. The strikes have brought renewed attention to the plight of the American public school system, which teachers say is under attack.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re now joined by a former educator who says the teachers’ strikes can help shed light on one of the largest public school scandals in U.S. history. Shani Robinson is a former first grade teacher in Atlanta, Georgia, who was convicted for what prosecutors said was her role in the massive cheating scandal that roiled the school district and drew national attention in 2015. Robinson was one of 11 former educators convicted of racketeering and other charges. Prosecutors say teachers were forced to modify incorrect answers and students were even allowed to fix their responses during exams.
This is Judge Jerry Baxter, speaking after the verdict was handed down. He ordered most of the educators immediately behind bars, an unusual move for first-time offenders.
JUDGE JERRY BAXTER: I made myself plain, from early on. And they have made this decision, and they have—they have—they’ve not fared well. And I don’t like to send anybody to jail. It’s not one of the things I get a kick out of. But they have made their bed, and they’re going to have to lie in it. And it starts today.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Two of the convicted former educators turned themselves in, in October, to begin their prison sentences. Nine were sentenced to jail but rejected sentencing agreements in order to appeal. Twenty-one defendants avoided trial with plea deals. The case has fueled criticism of the education system’s reliance on standardized testing, and elicited calls of racism, because 34 of the 35 educators indicted in the scandal were African-American.
AMY GOODMAN: Shani Robinson has written a new book on the cheating scandal, with journalist Anna Simonton. It’s called None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators. In the book, Shani Robinson writes, “[T]he dominant narrative that developed about the scandal rarely acknowledged the bigger picture: federal policies that encouraged school systems to reward and punish educators based on student test scores; a growing movement, driven by corporate interests, to privatize education by demonizing public schools; and land speculation—correlated to new charter schools springing up—that was gentrifying Black and brown neighborhoods across the country.”
We’re joined now in our New York studio by Shani Robinson, who’s still awaiting an appeal in the case. Also with us, Anna Simonton, independent journalist, editor for Scalawag magazine, graduate of the Atlanta Public Schools, co-author, with Shani Robinson, of None of the Above.
We welcome you both to Democracy Now!
SHANI ROBINSON: Thank you for having us.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you are appealing these charges. I mean, you basically were charged under laws to get the mafia.
SHANI ROBINSON: Correct. I was facing 25 years in prison. I was charged with racketeering and false statements and writings.
AMY GOODMAN: So, explain—lay out the story. Go back to 2013. Tell us what happened.
SHANI ROBINSON: So, the APS cheating scandal was a period—
AMY GOODMAN: Atlanta Public Schools.
SHANI ROBINSON: The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal was a period of time in which educators were accused of changing their students’ answers from wrong to right on standardized tests. And so, I was actually a teacher for three years in Atlanta Public Schools. And my second year teaching, I was a first grade teacher, and that later becomes the year in question.
ANNA SIMONTON: 2009, yeah.
SHANI ROBINSON: In 2009. And as a first grade teacher, my test scores actually did not count toward the district targets, which were benchmarks imposed by the APS school board and administration, or the federal standards, which was adequate yearly progress.
And so, in October of 2010, I get a phone call from a GBI agent, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and he asked me to come in to, strangely, a mall parking lot, is where I met him. And he tells me that there’s been an erasure analysis done for the entire state of Georgia. Twenty percent of the schools over the entire state of Georgia were flagged for high erasures.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain erasures.
SHANI ROBINSON: So, the erasure analysis was basically looking at how many times a student—right, a student’s went from wrong to right.
AMY GOODMAN: Erases their answer.
SHANI ROBINSON: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: And makes it right.
SHANI ROBINSON: And goes from wrong to right, right. After a certain amount, it’s like statistically improbable, outside of human intervention. And so, the agent told me that in my class specifically, there were high levels of wrong-to-right erasures. And he asked me: Can I explain this? And I say, “No, I can’t explain this.” And then he asked me: Well, did any administrators or the principal ever place any pressure on me to cheat on my students’ test booklets? And I said, “No.”
And then he pulls out a prewritten, voluntary statement form, which was basically saying you don’t have any knowledge about cheating, you didn’t cheat. And he asked me to sign this form. Now, the thing about this form is that later it’s used against many educators who signed the form. They were charged with false statements and writings, which is a felony. And so, teachers were really put between a rock and a hard place, because here you have a GBI agent—and, mind you, there were no attorneys present. I didn’t have an attorney present. And when they went into the schools, teachers were pulled from their classrooms and interrogated, so there really were no attorneys present. And so you have this GBIagent asking you to sign a form, and if you don’t sign the form, you didn’t really want to become a target, you know, but if you did sign the form, you could potentially become a felon.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, let me ask you, the entire investigation, it was touched off, wasn’t it, by a series in The Atlanta Constitution that began questioning the percentage of erasures that they were uncovering in their investigation? What impact did that series have on the general Atlanta community? And obviously it touched off the law enforcement officials.
SHANI ROBINSON: Right. And there were—at that time, I believe there were about—it was over about—there were about five schools, across five districts. And so, that prompted the governor to do a statewide investigation. And so—and just to even go into as far as like the widespread cheating is concerned, over 40 states in this country have had evidence of cheating allegations. Fourteen of those states, it was considered to be widespread. In Washington, D.C., there were 103 schools that were flagged for high—suspiciously high erasures or test scores. So, this was actually something that was happening across the country. So, what we can’t figure out is why teachers in Atlanta were slapped with felony charges. Some of my co-defendants were facing prison sentences of up to 40 years.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Anna Simonton, I’d like to ask you in terms of the broader picture. Now, this happens—these indictments come down in the middle of the Obama administration. President Obama and Arne Duncan, his education secretary, were very much into performance-based measures of teachers and standardized testing as a way—as a key way to measure whether a student is doing a good job. Could you talk about the pressures that were put on educators, and not only on the educators, but their supervisors, their principals and their superintendents, during this period of time?
ANNA SIMONTON: Yeah. This was a long-running trend beginning in the early 1990s, when high-stakes testing began to be utilized in school districts, like Houston’s. But it was really codified in federal law in 2001 with No Child Left Behind, which was signed by George W. Bush. But Obama really continued the policies of No Child Left Behind in practice, if not in name.
And one interesting piece to this story is how our governor at the time, Sonny Perdue, used the same 2009 test scores to apply for a $400 million Race to the Top grant. So, Race to the Top was a grant under the Obama administration for states that could show that they were doing some of these education reforms that the federal government was pushing—so, expanding charters, increasing high-stakes testing—that they could get federal funding. And so, at the same time that Sonny Perdue sends in GBI agents to the schools of Atlanta because he suspects that the 2009 CRCT test scores are fraudulent, he’s using those same test scores to say, “Hey, look, our test scores are going up.” And they did win that $400 million federal grant.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Anna, why did you get involved with Shani in writing this book, None of the Above? You, too, went to Atlanta Public Schools. Why was this so interesting to you?
ANNA SIMONTON: I did. I had to take these tests, and they were a drain on the actual education that I feel like students should be getting in the classroom. They’re, in my view, a waste of time.
But more important is that my middle school counselor was actually convicted in this case. I, like many people, watched the convictions handed down, not having really followed the trial. It was an 8-month trial, the longest criminal trial—excuse me—in Georgia history. And so it was hard for people to kind of understand what was happening as it dragged out. But when the convictions were handed down, it was like heartbreaking to see someone who I remembered being this like beacon in my own childhood, along with these other teachers. And so, when Shani reached out to me, it was just a wonderful opportunity to do something about it and try to tell another side of the story.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to this discussion. Our guests are Anna Simonton, independent reporter, editor for Scalawag, also joining us is Shani Robinson. She was the youngest of the teachers convicted in the Atlanta cheating scandal. She is appealing her conviction. Two teachers just recently went to jail. This is Democracy Now! Their book is called None of the Above. We’ll talk more about it in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: “Have No Fear” by the Filipino musician Noel Cabangon. In the Philippines, authorities have arrested the award-winning journalist Maria Ressa in connection with a cyber libel case. She’s the founder of the independent news site Rappler and believes, as do many human rights groups, that President Duterte is going after them. To see our full interview with Maria Ressa, you can go to democracynow.org.
This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. We’re continuing our discussion with the authors of the brand-new book None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators. Journalist Anna Simonton is with us, as well as co-author Shani Robinson, who is the youngest of the 35 teachers and staff charged in this scandal. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I wanted to ask Shani Robinson about this whole issue of high-stakes testing, the impact it has had on teachers, not only in Atlanta but across the nation. As we now know, there was a huge parent movement that developed to opt out. And in many states, there were huge percentages of parents who refused to have their kids be tested constantly anymore. But what was the impact on educators as authorities and state legislatures insisted on raising these test scores and constantly testing the kids?
SHANI ROBINSON: I actually think it was devastating, because teachers were constantly having to teach toward the test. And, you know, that can really stifle your creativity in the classroom. And so, yeah, that’s the main thing. And I look at other countries, like Finland, who don’t have high-stakes testing, who continue to outshine other countries with academics. So, just this push and this overemphasis of high-stakes testing, and even how it’s led to racketeering charges, you know, I just think that it was blown way out of proportion.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to—you want to follow up on that?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, no, I just wanted to ask, in terms of some of the key figures—for instance, the Atlanta superintendent of schools was also charged and eventually ended up passing away before—
SHANI ROBINSON: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —she could be brought to trial, right? Could you talk about the impact on the individuals in this case?
SHANI ROBINSON: And, you know, I really did not know—you’re referring to Dr. Beverly Hall. I never met her. Pretty much who I was in contact with were our principals. So, as far as that aspect, you know, I can’t really speak to Beverly Hall. But I will say, as a first grade teacher, I wouldn’t say that I experienced as much pressure as maybe a third through eighth grade teacher might have faced, because my test scores did not count. But there was definitely pressure, just from the educational policies and the overemphasis of high-stakes testing.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Beverly Hall, the Atlanta School District’s former superintendent, among those charged, was painted by some as the one who orchestrated the test cheating. You write in your book, Shani, “From the moment Hall was selected to lead APS“—Atlanta Public Schools—”in the spring of 1999, she was under a microscope. 'Everyone is watching her,' wrote the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 'From Gov. Roy Barnes—who is hammering out his statewide school reform effort—to corporate leaders, college presidents, and parents considering whether to entrust their children to the urban public schools.'” Hall faced up to 45 years in prison but died from breast cancer in 2015 before going to trial. She maintained her innocence.
I then want to go to Dana Evans. Dana Evans is the former principal of Dobbs Elementary School, who was convicted in the test-cheating trial. This is Evans on PBS NewsHour in 2017 responding to allegations that educators participated in cheating for financial gain.
DANA EVANS: I got bonuses one year out of the four years that I was a principal, and it was $1,000. And I gave more than $1,000 to Dobbs. I paid for kids’ uniforms, and I paid people’s rent and their gas bills. And it is offensive that—that I would cheat for $1,000.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Dana Evans. You both write in the book also about Donald Bullock, an educator who accepted a plea deal in 2015 in order to receive a reduced sentence. He apologized for his role.
DONALD BULLOCK: I, Donald Bullock, do hereby sincerely apologize to the students, my fellow staff members, parents and the Atlanta Public Schools system, as well as the greater metropolitan Atlanta community for my involvement in the 2009 CRC administration resulting in cheating or other dysfunctional acts.
AMY GOODMAN: You both write in the book that Bullock, quote, “endured the shame of reading an apology after maintaining his innocence for so long, only for Baxter to slap him with five years of probation, six months of week-end jail, a $5,000 fine, and fifteen hundred hours of community service.” Anna Simonton, tell us what happened with the different people involved, from apologies, plea agreements, to, in Shani’s case, she’s appealing.
ANNA SIMONTON: Yeah. So, 35 educators were originally indicted. Many of them took plea agreements, and many of those folks, their plea agreements required them to testify in this trial. So, 11 folks actually went to trial.
And the trial itself was nonsensical. So, there were witnesses who recanted on the stand and said, “Actually, I just said what I said in order to get this plea agreement, and I never was under the kind of pressure that I’m now supposed to testify against my former colleagues about.” So, additionally, witnesses were contradicting each other, to the extent that the judge, Jerry Baxter, said, “Perjury is being committed here daily.” And yet he didn’t strike those testimonies from the record. He didn’t allow for a mistrial.
Everything was very much slanted toward the prosecution—six months of prosecution witnesses compared to a few weeks of defense witnesses. So, by the time that the convictions were handed down and sentencing happened, Jerry Baxter had become emotionally volatile, patronizing. And that’s where we see him demanding apologies, and not only that, but demanding that folks give up their right to appeal, which is really why many of the defendants did not want to apologize, and yet were portrayed in the media as–we’ve heard the word “provocative,” as if they were flaunting somehow their moral obligation. But, in fact, they would have had to have given up their constitutional right to appeal. So those are just some of the things that made this trial incredibly unfair.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what about the sentences that Judge Baxter handed out? What kind of a message did that send across the country to educators everywhere?
ANNA SIMONTON: An incredibly chilling message. And his emotional volatility was to the point where he actually, at first, sentenced the school reform team director—so these are administrators—with 20 years in prison, which was—or, excuse me, 20 years, to serve a fewer number of years and the rest on probation. But that was beyond what the prosecution was actually asking for. So, he was—yeah, he was just like slamming down the gavel on educators.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the racial disparities in this case—34 of the 35 people charged, including Shani, African-American?
ANNA SIMONTON: Yeah, and all of them people of color. No white teachers were charged, even though white teachers were implicated in the original Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s report.
Another sort of example is how at the same time that the GBI was investigating Atlanta Public Schools, they actually did an equally in-depth investigation into Dougherty County schools. This was one of the districts that was flagged in the state’s original statewide look at the erasure analysis. And Dougherty County had cheating going on, on par with Atlanta Public Schools, according to the GBI, and yet the local district attorney there did not bring any charges. And one of the big differences was that their superintendent was a white woman, whereas Beverly Hall is a black woman who was a rising star in the field of urban education.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Has anything changed in Atlanta Public Schools in terms of student achievement, in terms of how tests are administered, in terms of their sense of modernizing and corporatizing public education?
ANNA SIMONTON: If anything, this has reinforced the kind of corporate education reforms that we feel contributed to the conditions that created the cheating scandal. So, the narrative was constructed in a way to say, “Look how terrible public schools are. They’re rife with corruption. They’re failing. We need charters schools as an alternative. We need more data-driven education instruction as an alternative. That’s going to be the answer.”
And, in fact, our governor at the time, Nathan Deal, introduced legislation on the day that the prosecution rested, so the media was full of like recaps of how horrible teachers were. He introduced legislation to create something called an Opportunity School District, that was modeled on Louisiana’s Recovery School District, which would enable the state to take over so-called failing schools and turn them into charters. As a result of amazing grassroots organizing, that was actually turned down. But other similar reforms have been put forward to continue those attempts.
AMY GOODMAN: You both document in the book the history of the destruction of the black communities of Atlanta because of gentrification, poverty, the war on drugs. How does this link to the cheating scandal?
ANNA SIMONTON: Well, in a broad sense, it poses a question—Who is really cheating these children?—if we think about cheating in terms of a lack of opportunity. And some of the same people who were involved in blowing this so-called cheating scandal out of proportion have contributed to the harm of black communities historically.
So, Mike Bowers was George’s attorney general for many years, later was a lead investigator looking into Atlanta Public Schools. As attorney general, he was one of the main people pushing for tough-on-crime laws that vastly expanded mass incarceration in Georgia, led to generational trauma that students are now bringing to school. In his 1996 bid for governor, he called children “superpredators”—black children—trying to drum up fear in his white voter base. And then, a few years later, he’s on the news, one of the most vocal people, saying, “Oh, these poor children have been cheated by teachers.”
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Shani, what about the local elected officials? Atlanta has always been seen as a progressive city, with considerable African-American progressive political leaders. Where were they when all of this was happening?
SHANI ROBINSON: Well, that’s a good question. Atlanta has always been known as “the city too busy to hate,” so it’s all about image. And historically, black and white elite have worked together to decrease any racial tension. And so, you know, it begs the question: Why were so many black teachers, educators charged? You know, it’s almost in a sense of, if you can make a situation look like it’s more black-on-black crime, you have—you decrease that level of racial tension. But in our book, we detail Atlanta’s history of displacement and destruction. And so we feel that the criminalization of black teachers was just the next chapter in that legacy.
AMY GOODMAN: Shani, talk about what happened to you, how this impacted you. You were pregnant at the time?
SHANI ROBINSON: I was pregnant during the entire 8-month trial. And it was emotionally and mentally draining. It was also financially draining. We were in court Monday through Thursday, 9:00 to 5:00. And, you know, just to—the most disheartening thing to me, the way it was portrayed in the media was that educators cheated on their children’s tests to get a payout. And so, that’s why it was, you know, this big talk about how we had cheated the children. The lead investigator on the case testified that bonus money provided little incentive to actually cheat. And so, my bond was about $200,000, and it was one of the lowest. Others were—
AMY GOODMAN: Two hundred thousand dollars?
SHANI ROBINSON: Mine was one of the lowest. There were others that were in the millions. And so, just the media portrayal of it, it was really making it seem like we had gotten all of this money. My school, we actually did not meet our targets, so I have never received one penny of bonus money ever. My test scores did not even count. And I didn’t cheat.
AMY GOODMAN: On what grounds are you appealing?
SHANI ROBINSON: Well, the first step—and my attorneys have been working diligently on getting the judge to recuse himself. During the trial, right before the verdict was released, he told the jury, “Whatever your verdict is, I will defend it until I die.” So, based on his own words, we already know where he stands on this case.
He also had a private conversation with the district attorney. And when that came to light, our attorneys asked for a mistrial, but he denied it.
There was a situation where he even tried to assist one of my—one of the state witnesses with identifying one of my co-defendants. There was a woman who was asked to identify one of my co-defendants, and so she started walking around the courtroom, and the judge called out to her and said, “You’re getting cold.” And so the woman turned around and started walking in the opposite direction. She never recognized my co-defendant and eventually returned to the witness stand.
And so, it’s hard to believe that a judge can be impartial after doing so many things like that. And he retired, and they reassigned our case to another judge, but somehow this same judge, Judge Jerry Baxter, has been allowed to continue to preside over our case.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, we began this segment by talking about the Denver strike. Anna, how do you see this story linking in to this bigger story of teachers’ strikes across the country?
ANNA SIMONTON: I think it’s deeply connected. I think that some of the same conditions that are sparking teachers to take to the streets and protest, and to the halls of their capitol statehouses, these issues of privatization, draining resources from the classroom, these are all things that were driving forces of the cheating scandal in the way that the narrative was constructed to demonize public schools in order to further the privatization of public schools.
I also think that there’s this, you know, in the sort of resurgence of this education justice movement, a focus on black educators, in particular, with things like the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action. And so, folks are really looking at racial injustice in the education system in a way that I think this case is sort of the epitome of.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the impact on charter schools in Atlanta? Have they grown since this?
ANNA SIMONTON: Yeah, there’s been, each year, an increase, although the overall number has not gone up a whole lot, because there’s—often new ones that open close. And so, that’s part of the problem with charters, is this sort of fly-by-night situation.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have 20 seconds. I know you’re both presenting None of the Above at CUNY Grad School here in New York tonight at 6:00. What message do you have for educators, Shani?
SHANI ROBINSON: Just to stay strong. And I just want people to know that the APS cheating scandal was a manufactured crisis that scapegoated black educators and distracted everyone from the real problems that are undermining public education.
AMY GOODMAN: We thank you so much for being with us. Again, their book, None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators. Shani Robinson, the youngest of the teachers convicted in 2015. She is appealing that conviction. And journalist Anna Simonton, co-authors of the book None of the Above. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.