In the city dubbed “too busy to hate,” Atlanta’s history of public-private partnerships, demolition of public housing, and the state’s defunding of public education was overshadowed by the sensationalized Atlanta Public Schools (APS) cheating scandal. For decades before the scandal, politicians and developers actively pushed out the low-income children who media outlets claimed to be cheated by APS educators, and continue to do so today. By demonizing Black educators and shifting the public perception of APS, the scandal provided impetus for privatization of public schools; educators became scapegoats for the policies and practices that historically disenfranchised low-income, Black and Brown communities of Atlanta. As Shani Robinson, one of the wrongfully convicted teachers, stated, “The Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial was a distraction from the root problems that have harmed black communities since slavery.”*
To understand who really cheated the kids of the APS scandal, we must also recognize Atlanta’s socio-political factors, underfunding of public education in Georgia, and federal education policy’s impact on widespread cheating across the country. Prior to the “scandal,” high-stakes testing, public-private city partnerships, Tax Allocation Districts (TADs),* budget cuts to schools, and the movement to open charter schools were intentionally dismantling public education and simultaneously benefitting private interests. As one educators’ defense attorney George Lawson stated, “It is not just APS that is on trial here today… public education is on trial today… Public education will be on trial for some time, because there are those in our community and in our state who would believe that the dollars and the cents that we put into public education [are] not worth it because the benefit received is nothing.”*
The timeline below contextualizes the scandal, investigation, and trial that led to the unprecedented criminalization of educators for alleged cheating; it provides a critical counter-narrative and shows who really cheated the kids.
Thanks to Shani Robinson and Anna Simonton for leading this work through their book, None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators. This project would not have been possible without their research, writing, and work to bring the urgent need for reframing the narrative to the forefront of our minds.
*Sources 1-3, citations at end of the timeline PDF
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In Atlanta, the Black Mecca of the South, 7 Black teachers are on the verge of going to prison any day now. Several already have. These Black educators are going to prison during a pandemic and national teacher shortage because of a standardized test. The sensationalized, so-called “Atlanta Public Schools (APS) Cheating Scandal” demonized Black educators, ignoring a gross lack of accountability from policymakers and politicians. Now, 7 years after the longest and most expensive criminal trial in Georgia history, a retired White Judge, Jerry Baxter, and the former lead prosecutor of the case–now Fulton County District Attorney–Fani Willis, are trying to send the 7 remaining educators who have been out on an appeal bond to prison.
The APS “Cheating Scandal” began in late 2008 with an investigation by the Atlanta Journal Constitution into statistically unlikely test score jumps across various Georgia schools on the state standardized test, the CRCT. This article eventually led to the interest of Georgia state officials, and in 2011, the state conducted an investigation during which APS teachers were pulled out of their classrooms without attorneys present by Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) agents. 198 schools in Georgia were investigated; about a quarter of those schools were Atlanta Public Schools. A GBI investigator who conducted interviews testified that one teacher interview cost approximately $1,600. The GBI conducted over 2,000 interviews, costing taxpayers millions for interviews alone.
Despite the fact that around 60% of Georgia educators at the time were White, only 12 Black Atlanta Public School educators were charged and taken to trial in 2014. The trial lasted until 2015. During the trial, evidence of criminal immunity in exchange for implicating school colleagues emerged. Witnesses presented conflicting and unsubstantiated testimonies causing Judge Jerry Baxter to admit on the record that "perjury is being committed daily here." Despite all of this, 11 of these educators were found guilty on federal racketeering charges. RICO, or the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, is a federal law that allows the state to prosecute individuals or organizations who are criminally conspiring and who stand to materially gain from that. RICO charges are typically used to prosecute the Mafia and others engaged in organized crime. In this case, the material gain were a few hundred dollar bonuses that a handful of the teachers were eligible for. These bonuses totalled $3,500 over the course of 6 years. Some of the educators weren’t even eligible for the bonuses because their students were too young to have their test scores count. In the case of those teachers, it was argued that their very salaries were evidence of their criminal conspiracy for material gain. Seven years after the case made national headlines, taxpayer dollars and resources have continued to fund the prosecution of the accused Black educators over alleged cheating on the standardized tests. Two of the accused took sentencing agreements. Two eventually went to prison after their cases were rejected by the Georgia Supreme Court and have since been released. Seven educators are still awaiting prison time.
During the statewide investigation, some teachers admitted to cheating or changing students' answers on the test. Interestingly, those teachers did not go to prison. The 11 convicted educators of the APS Cheating Scandal have maintained their innocence throughout, prompting the ire of the judge on their trial, Jerry Baxter. But to us, the question is simple: even if educators cheated, should they be sentenced to prison? Similar instances of cheating occurred across school districts in 40 states and Washington D.C. at the time. Georgia is the only state that chose to imprison teachers for said allegations. Across other municipalities, accused educators had licenses revoked or were fired. It was treated as a personnel issue rather than a criminal conspiracy. The APS Cheating Scandal is an extreme case of prosecutorial overreach and racial bias. There was cheating and it is a scandal–but not in the sense that the public was made to believe.
This widespread issue is a consequence of high-stakes standardized testing implemented through No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The dominant narrative that developed during the investigation and trial was that students were harmed by these educators with little consideration of NCLB, a highly criticized education policy that introduced nationwide consequences for standardized test scores, which has caused widespread cheating. Test scores determine whether students graduate, schools are closed or lose funding, and teachers keep their jobs; test prep drives curriculum, in some cases eliminating science, the arts, and social studies in an effort to focus only on test-relevant content. Test scores are so powerful that the governor at the time of the cheating scandal, Sonny Perdue, applied for a grant from Obama’s Race to the Top program, knowingly using the inflated test scores. He was awarded $400 million as a result The overreliance on testing and the associated consequences significantly harm students. Standardized tests have been proven time and again to be racially and economically biased: they tend to determine the zip code of a student more successfully than the student’s intelligence. NCLB created conditions for extensive cheating in most US states; it persists despite the outcry of many students, parents, and educators. Now, APS educators are paying a hefty price for poor education policy.
We need your help to free these Black Atlanta educators. To learn more about the case, dive into the numerous resources listed here. To fight alongside these teachers, please sign the petition, call the Georgia officials who can make a difference, and stay up-to-date on calls to action by visiting this webpage, ATN's Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. We are also available for teach-ins on this important and ongoing piece of education history. To request a teach-in, please fill out this form. At a time when teachers are under attack by their state legislators across the country, continuing to threaten Black educators with prison sets a terrifying precedent. Let’s fight for all of us. #FreeTheAps7.
In Dr. Dana Evans' final hearing on June 28, 2022, it was ruled that she would receive NO JAIL TIME. This is huge. Thank you for your advocacy. None of these teachers should have to suffer anymore. We need your help to continue the fight. Please see the resources above and stay tuned to our social media to continue advocacy for the other
In Dr. Dana Evans' final hearing on June 28, 2022, it was ruled that she would receive NO JAIL TIME. This is huge. Thank you for your advocacy. None of these teachers should have to suffer anymore. We need your help to continue the fight. Please see the resources above and stay tuned to our social media to continue advocacy for the other APS 6 and for those who have already suffered at the hands of the criminal injustice system.