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Savage Sentences for Test-Altering Atlanta Teachers

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In mid-April a Florida superior court judge handed down harsh prison sentences to 10 former school administrators, principals and elementary school teachers because of a citywide test cheating scandal within the Atlanta public school system.

What these educators did was inflate 2008 test scores.

The Obama administration and both corporate Democratic and Republican parties are big on standardized testing. According to Jerry White and Kranti Kumara in “Judge hands down brutal sentences in Atlanta test ‘cheating’ case”, the testing helps justify the politicians’ and corporate profiteers’ “attacks on the jobs, living standards and work conditions of public school teachers along with the further diversion of resources to for-profit charter operations.”

White and Kumara view the prosecution as a “vendetta” which, incidentally, was backed by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. They also call it a “novel use” of state racketeering laws which they explain are “normally reserved for organized crime activities such as prostitution, counterfeiting or illegal drugs and weapons trafficking.”

Apparently there were gasps in the courtroom when Judge Jerry Baxter announced maximum 20-year sentences for three former school administrators. Tamara Cotman, 44; Sharon Davis-Williams, 59; and Michael Pitts, 59. This translates to 7 years in prison, 13 years on probation, fines of $25,000 each and 2,000 hours of community service.

[NOTE: At the end of April, Judge Baxter had to reduce the 20 year sentences to 10, 3 to be served in prison and 7 on probation, and reduced their fines from $25,000 to $10,000 (the 2,000 hours of community service was unchanged) since he had been wrong about the maximum sentence number. The jury had found those three educators guilty of “conspiring” to violate racketeering laws and not actually violating them.]

Elementary school teacher Angela Williams, 49, and assistant principal Tabeeka Jordan, 43, were sentenced to 5 years, including 2 years in prison, 3 years probation, 1,500 hours of community service and a $5,000 fine.

Former principal Dana Evans, 48; testing coordinator Theresia Copeland, 58; and former elementary teacher Diane Buckner-Webb, 53, were sentenced to 5 years with 1 in prison, the balance on probation, 1,000 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine.

Finally, another 31 year old elementary school teacher, Shani Robinson, avoided sentencing this round since she had just given birth but will face separation from her newborn baby in August when her sentencing will occur.

These educators all were answerable to Superintendent Beverly Hall who threatened them with “humiliation, demotion and even dismissal” if they did not meet the achievement targets of the standardized tests.

Hall had been honored as 2009 National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) for “transforming” the 102 schools of the system.

Hall also was charged in the scandal but died of breast cancer in March.

Judge Baxter expressed angry impatience at sympathetic supporters of the educators who had attended their sentencing:

“Everyone starts crying about these educators. There were thousands of children harmed in this thing. This is not a victimless crime…When you are passed and you can’t read, you are passed and passed on, there are victims that are in the jail that I have sentenced, kids.”

White and Kumara assert this was fraudulent and that accurate test results would NOT have meant immediate intervention for at-risk kids. Lower test results mainly would have helped further cripple the public school system. The public schools of Atlanta, like schools across the country, have lost thousands of jobs, essential programs and resources as well as entire schools. The Atlanta Public School system eliminated 350 teaching and support staff positions in 2012.

White and Kumara explain that the testing “regime” at the center of the Atlanta supposed “school reform” is financed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which they claim has a mission: “to scapegoat teachers for educational problems caused by decades of budget cuts and an increasing proportion of students suffering from poverty, and to justify the further privatization of public education.”

One of the educators' representing attorneys, Sanford Wallack, likened the long probe by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to a Salem witch-hunt trial. Wallack wrote:

“I am greatly disappointed that both the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office and the Court felt that any period of incarceration was an appropriate sentence for any of the defendants in this case.

“Based on my experience as a criminal defense attorney for over 20 years and in my opinion, the facts and circumstances of these individuals and in this case—the same factors that courts routinely consider in determining sentences in criminal cases throughout the State of Georgia on a regular basis—do not warrant any term of incarceration, but rather warrant sentences of probation at worst. I am thankful, however, that the Court ultimately relented in granting appeal bonds and look forward to the appellate courts’ review of the case.”

Mayor Andrew Young admitted that 20 years of "testing" focus had been a “trap” for educators and “warped” the mission of public schools. White and Kumara suggest that Young, like other Democratic politicians, is nervous about provoking too close a public examination of the steady and profitable-for-corporatists privatization of American schools.

Former principal, Dana Evans, when asked to waive the chance of appeal for her sentencing told the judge:

“I have been arrested, shackled, spent the last two weeks in jail. I have been punished. I am broke now. I have no retirement. All of it is gone… I know you want to hear an admission of guilt, but I can’t say that because it is not the truth.”

Baxter responded to the stubborn educators who would not accept a plea, and even those who had, with what White and Kumara call “savage” sentences. They write:

This is class justice. While police can get away with murder and the real racketeers who are conspiring to destroy public education or who wrecked the economy and waged wars based on lies are never held to account, the full weight of the capitalist courts is levied against the working class. Particular vindictiveness is reserved for any section of workers who dare defy the state and uphold their democratic rights.

White and Kumara disclose that American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten “joined the witch-hunt" and that her union has received millions from the Gates Foundation and has helped the Obama administration back CORPORATE-profiteering school reform.

[cross-posted on znet]

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