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Sentencing Begins For Atlanta Teachers Convicted In Cheating Scandal


In Atlanta a sentencing hearing resumes tomorrow for 10 convicted educators. They were successfully prosecuted for racketeering and have been jailed since the verdict on April 1. Each one faces up to 20 years in prison. Supporters of the former educators packed the courtroom this morning appealing for leniency. Dana Goldstein writes for the Marshall Project, an organization that reports on the American criminal justice system. She says while this case is the largest of its kind, cheating by teachers is not uncommon.

DANA GOLDSTEIN: A federal report in 2013 found 40 of 50 states are showing some evidence of this type of cheating, and an older study from the Chicago public schools looked at all the classrooms in that district, and it found evidence of teacher cheating on tests in 5 percent of classrooms. And something that's relevant to the Atlanta case is that that Chicago study seemed to suggest that when there were lots of incentives for adults tied to these student tests, that's when cheating increased.

CORNISH: Incentives meaning pay bonuses - things like that?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, but it could be something as simple as threatening to shut down a school. I mean, if you're working full-time at a school, you feel invested in that. It's your career. You don't want that school to be shut down. So it doesn't necessarily have to be a financial incentive. It can be more of a career incentive.

CORNISH: When we say cheating, what are we talking about here? Can you give us some examples?

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, well, in Atlanta it's pretty clear that educators were erasing the bubbles that student had bubbled in on their standardized test answer sheets, so those Scantrons that many of us remember from our old school days. And they were correcting those answers to the correct answers. Ninety percent of the erasures in Atlanta appeared to be changed from wrong to right. And that's out of whack with what a student would do under natural circumstances. A student is very likely sometimes to erase and then choose another wrong answer, so that's definitely not what was happening in Atlanta where the cheating has occurred.

CORNISH: And you've looked over some of these cases across the country. What would you call a typical punishment?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, it's very unusual for this to even get to court or for there to be criminal charges filed against a misbehaving teacher or administrator. So a typical outcome would be losing his or her tenure protections, maybe losing your professional license so that you couldn't again work in education.

CORNISH: And one of the most famous examples was in El Paso. Tell us what happened there.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah. So the former superintendent of El Paso, Texas - his name is Lorenzo Garcia. And he led an effort to prevent failing students in that district from sitting for their 10th-grade standardized tests. And those were very high-stakes exams because it was how the district was being judged according to No Child Left Behind, the big federal school reform law. So he pled guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. And there was all sorts of fishy business that was going on in that district in terms of how students were prevented from sitting for the test. They were encouraged to stay home on testing days. They were held back in ninth grade so they would never get to 10th grade. And some were even denied the ability to enroll in 10th grade, and particularly Latino students who could not speak English very well were targeted for that.

CORNISH: How were prosecutors in the Atlanta case able to apply racketeering charges in this instance? I mean, you're writing - these cases are sort of described, as you mentioned, white-collar crime. But racketeering - that's not what we normally think of in terms of white-collar crime.

GOLDSTEIN: No, we think of racketeering used to prosecute maybe corrupt politicians or drug lords, Mafiosos. So certainly, to apply racketeering to teachers was really unusual. But basically racketeering can come in handy for prosecutors if what they're trying to establish is a pyramid scheme - a scheme in which the people in charge at the top of some sort of organization - in this case, a school district - were directing those below them to do something illegal and to do a criminal act. And perhaps the people at the top didn't themselves go in and erase those answer sheets, but they were encouraging and tacitly kind of forcing, perhaps, or encouraging teachers and lower-level administrators like school principals to do these illegal acts.

So that's why the prosecutor chose to use RICO in this case, although they could have made a different choice and just prosecuted each individual with tampering with public records, which is what prosecutors have chosen to do in other places in the country were cheating is alleged to have occurred.

CORNISH: That Dana Goldstein. She's a staff writer for the Marshall Project and author of the book "The Teacher Wars: A History Of America's Most Embattled Profession." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

GOLDSTEIN: My pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.