The Right Opinion

Dem-Controlled Atlanta Schools Rob Minority Students of Their Futures

The nation's epicenter of educational fraud, corruption and public school failure.

By Arnold Ahlert · Feb. 22, 2013

The Atlanta Public School system (APS) bears a strikingly depressing resemblance to all the other big city school systems chronicled in this series. Yet it does stand out in one respect: APS was the epicenter of the biggest cheating scandal in the nation. And once again, in a Democrat-controlled school district where more than eight-in-ten children are black Americans, it is those children who bear the burden of a system enmeshed in a culture of corruption and failure.

The details of the scandal are shocking. A state investigation discovered that 178 teachers and principals, 82 of whom subsequently confessed, were engaged in the rigging of test scores at 44 schools. Investigators concluded that those schools, comprising nearly half of the city’s total number, and located mostly in the city’s poorest neighborhoods, had been cheating for as along as a decade. As a result, tens of thousands of minority children were routinely advanced to higher grade levels, even as they remained unable to grasp fundamental concepts.

According to the report, administrators who felt pressured by the the federal government’s No Child Left Behind law created a climate of “fear, intimidation and retaliation,” so oppressive that teachers felt they had no other choice but to go along with the subterfuge. “Everybody was in fear,” said a teacher in the report. “It is not that the teachers are bad people and want to do it. It is that they are scared.”

Most of that fear was engendered by former school superintendent Beverly L. Hall. Hall was hired in 1999, coming in with an undeserved reputation as a savior, despite leaving behind a still-troubled Newark school system that she ran so badly, the local chapter of the NAACP was glad to see her go. Moreover, she took over the APS even as she remained the target of a New Jersey State Senate investigation probing what happened to $58 million dollars of taxpayer funds under her control.

In Atlanta, Hall made it clear to principals that if test scores did not improve, they would be fired. During her ten years at the helm of the APS, she made good on her threat: 90 percent of the principals serving under her were terminated. The report minced no words describing her tenure. “Fear of termination and public ridicule in faculty and principals meetings drove numerous educators to cross ethical lines,” it said. “Further, because targets rose annually, teachers found it increasingly difficult to achieve them.” The report also noted that “Dr. Hall and her senior cabinet accepted accolades when those below them performed well, but they wanted none of the burdens of failure.”

Hall, who was named the 2009 National Superintendent of the Year, remained defiant regarding the scandal. “Cheating on the CRCT (Criterion Reference Competency Test) in 2009 or earlier by no means undermines the clear indication of improvement shown by the annual testing of all segments of our student population as part of the Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) performed and monitored independently by agents of the federal government’s National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP),” she contended.

In 2011, Binghamton University Professor Lawrence C. Stedman analyzed Atlanta’s performance on NAEP tests during Hall’s tenure in order to assess her assertion. He concluded that it was little more than self-serving. According to Stedman, APS students lag 1-2 years behind national averages on the NAEP, and “vast percentages” of Atlanta school children cannot reach the NAEP’s basic level of achievement. In grades 4 and 8, where testing is done to assess overall progress, less than 25 percent of the students were rated proficient. In other subjects and grades, 90 percent of students lacked proficiency. Stedman’s most damnable conclusion? “At current rates, it will take from 50 to 110 years to bring all students to proficiency,” he wrote.

In chronicling other urban school systems, it has been useful to compare the disparity between local test scores and those on the NAEP, which are usually lower. In this case, it is impossible to do so with any assurance that such information would be valid. The achievement gap is also impossible to determine, because closing it was one of the motivations behind the cheating scandal. Yet there can be no denying that even with falsely boosted test results, the graduation rate of APS students remains dismal: only 52 percent of APS students currently graduate.

Thus, it was totally unsurprising that on Election Day, Georgians passed Amendment 1 by a whopping 58-42 percent margin. Amendment 1 grants the state the power to approve charter schools, irrespective of a local school board’s objections. Under the prior law, charter school applicants were required to get the approval of the local school board. If the application was rejected, they could appeal to the Georgia Board of Education. Those who supported the amendment contended they did so because Georgia’s schools are terrible, and competition will likely result in improvement.

Naturally the teachers union was against the measure, along with a coalition of black lawmakers, and civil rights groups, including the the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP. Ironically, the antipathy aimed at the genuine competition charters represent was framed in racial terms when a legendary civil rights figure, 91-year-old Rev. Joseph Lowery, appeared in ads pleading with Georgians not to let law makers “resegregate our schools.” There are currently 13 charters operating in the Atlanta school district and, like other urban school districts where demand for a decent education outstrips supply, a lottery system is the only avenue of escape from the APS. Mr. Lowery, et al., would be wise to focus on the kind of genuine segregation such a system represents.

On the other hand, the teachers union’s support for the status quo of endemic scandal and dismal achievement is not hard to fathom. According to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE), the average salary paid to an Atlanta teacher is $94,068. According to the APS, it is  $85,675.93 when a 30 percent benefit package is included in the mix. Either way, teachers are extremely well-compensated. Adding insult to injury, some of the APS educators involved in the cheating scandal were also paid approximately $500,000 in merit pay for achieving the phony higher test scores. Beverly Hall pulled down $580,000 in “performance” bonuses as well, over the course of her tenure.

Hall was allowed to resign without penalty. Several of the teachers caught up in the scandal are refusing to follow her lead, despite the possibility of criminal charges, because, as the Atlanta Journal Constitution (AJC) puts it, they have “little incentive” to do so. Union job protections allow for only eight “fireable” offenses, and school districts must prove teachers are guilty. This results in a time-consuming and expensive process that has cost the district $6.2 million in salaries for suspended educators, and $700,000 in legal fees – so far. Both numbers are expected to increase as the investigation goes on. Moreover, even if the suspected teachers are fired, they are still entitled to employment hearings that will cost an average of $9000 per teacher.

Such nonsense goes a long way towards explaining why the APS, much like its counterparts in other urban schools systems, is coping with budget problems. The $574.7 million budget approved for FY2013 included termination of 375 non-teaching positions, and cutting the school year by four “furlough days” rather than two.

Finally, as this series on failing urban schools systems has revealed, Democrats dominate the political landscape in Atlanta. Despite losing the State to Mitt Romney in the 2012 election, President Obama carried Atlanta’s Fulton County by a whopping thirty percentage points. In the 2008 U.S. Senate election, several of the city’s districts voted more than 90 percent Democrat. As the AJC notes, black Georgians “vote overwhelmingly Democratic.”

APS’s current Superintendent is Erroll B. Davis Jr., another ostensible reformer who took over after Hall resigned. He brings a different perspective to the job and he has made it clear that he will not tolerate any further cheating. “My policy is zero tolerance,” he said in 2011, after removing a teacher from a classroom following the investigation of a complaint. “I do not want people who cheat teaching children. Can I do that? We’ll find out. If I lose, so be it, sue me." Davis’s contract was just renewed in December, yet his position remains tenuous because the Atlanta Public Schools' Board of Education can still hire a permanent superintendent, or the school board can cancel his contract by a 5-4 vote. Both provisions require giving him 90 days notice.

Maybe Davis will clean up the system. But the damage to thousands of black school children in Atlanta has already been done, just as it will continue to be done, by a status quo of unions and their Democratic enablers who have turned a blind eye to massive corruption and endemic failure. In a better world, the entire concept of union-controlled public school education as it currently exists would be jettisoned. Yet as long as big-city voters keep supporting a corrupt Democrat-union alliance, genuine reform likely remains impossible – and as in every other city chronicled in this series, black and minority children will be hurt the most.

Arnold Ahlert is a columnist for FrontPage Magazine.