Eleven of 12 defendants in the Atlanta Public Schools testing scandal were found guilty today by a jury of their peers, handcuffed and taken into custody immediately. Sentencing has yet to come, but prison may loom for most if not all.
Another 21 defendants had previously pleaded guilty in the case, accepting only probation and community service. The contrast in potential punishment between those who chose to admit guilt and those who were convicted today is stark and may seem unfair to some, but it is not unusual. From the beginning, Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter had warned defendants that they were risking “severe consequences” if they chose to fight the charges against them, and now those consequences are about to get real.
Still, I don’t think it’s possible to claim that justice has been fully done, or could ever be fully done. Moral responsibility for this scandal ripples far into the community, reaching many who were never indicted or charged. The consequences of it extend even farther, touching thousands of lives.
And I’ll admit, it’s hard not to have sympathy for at least a few of those convicted today. Thanks to the former APS superintendent, the late Beverly Hall, these teachers and administrators were placed in a no-win situation, forced to choose between cheating on standardized testing or losing their jobs. But that sympathy has limits too, because when they made the choice to cheat, those they cheated most were the schoolchildren whose futures had been placed in their hands. They then compounded that bad choice by deciding not to plead guilty and not to take responsibility for their mistakes.
And no, these verdicts do not mean that the Atlanta Public Schools can at last put this scandal behind it. It will be and should be part of the district’s legacy for a long, long time to come. It stands as a warning to those in the business community who preferred not to see what was really happening, and who preferred that others also not see it. It is a reminder for leaders in every field of endeavor that when they decide what should be measured, what should be rewarded and what should be punished, they decide almost everything. It demonstrates that a system founded upon perverse incentives, as the APS bureaucracy clearly was, will inevitably produce perverse outcomes.
Personally, I still have a hard time shaking the memory of one-on-one conversations with Hall in which she obstinately, repeatedly refused to concede that anything had gone awry with the system’s testing system. As I wrote back then, her denials were downright stunning and in hindsight even Nixonian. By sheer force of will, she had created a world in which her distorted version of events was the only one that mattered, and all who lived and worked within that world were forced to abide by its strange rules.
As we learned from testimony in the trial, some subordinates adjusted eagerly to that distorted world and were just as eager to reap rewards for that subservience; others merely did what they felt forced to do. Only a relative few were strong enough to challenge the system directly, and they were quickly identified and removed. It can be hard to do the right thing, but then again, it’s the role of the justice system to make it even harder to do the wrong thing.
In that regard, this outcome is appropriate.