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A judge's fury. Likely appeals. And big picture questions.

Fulton Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter made two comments today that explain the severity of the sentences he imposed on eight Atlanta Public Schools administrators and teachers.

He sentenced the three highest-level administrators, Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis Williams and Michael Pitts, to serve seven of 20-year sentences for their roles in the APS cheating scandal. And he imposed $25,000 fines on each of them.

Five other educators -- Angela Williamson, Diane Buckner-Webb,  Tabeeka Jordan, Theresia Copeland and Dana Evans -- got five years, with one to two to serve.

Baxter’s wrath stemmed from two issues. The first was what he considered misplaced sympathies. The focus should not be on the harm to lifelong educators who held positions of power, he said, but on the lives of students who were powerless.

“Everyone starts crying about these educators. There were thousands of children harmed in this thing. This is not a victimless crime...The only chance they had was the school. 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."

His second concern was the failure of defendants to acknowledge they cheated.

“All I want for many of these people is to just take some responsibility, but they refuse. They refuse,” he said in court today.

In the end, only two of the 10 convicted educators, Donald Bullock and Pam Cleveland, received lesser sentences today because they waived their right to appeal, admitted their guilt and apologized in court.

The other eight defendants who declined the deal can appeal, and most likely will, ensuring this drama continues.

The lawyers will be laying out their legal grounds for appeal in the next few months. Based on points raised today by attorneys, the issues may deal with:

1. Is there a difference in being guilty of RICO or guilty of conspiracy to commit RICO? RICO is an odd bird because in and of itself, unlike any other crime, is the element of conspiracy. Can you conspire to commit a conspiracy? And, if so, is there a difference?

2. When there are two statutes at play, there's another legal argument that the defendant must be sentenced under the lesser statute. That issued was raised by a lawyer today but shrugged off by Baxter.

There is also the crazy nature of this trial – 12 defendants with different circumstances, culpability and evidence. Anyone who watched the sentencing over these last two days saw the inevitable chaos that comes with crowd sourcing a trial.

In a big picture reflection on the case and on the related education issues, two points are worth our time:

1. Did these defendants take the blows for the dozens of others Atlanta educators whose cheating was far more extensive but took plea deals? Several of these educators were minor players compared to, for instance, the Parks Middle School cheating cabal. Because they were the only educators to go to trial and because the district attorney failed to indict top APS leadership, did these 11 pay  price for all the cheating and conniving?

2. Judge Baxter maintained these 11 educators caused kids to be passed on without the skills necessary for the next grade. And he was agitated by that, declaring it a grave injustice to advance kids who lacked the required skills.

Despite the judge's shock, isn't this commonplace?

I talked to a high school teacher at one of the best schools in the state two weeks ago, and she expressed dismay at some of the students arriving in her classroom. She could not believe her middle school colleagues could pronounce these students ready for high school.

When the AJC looked at Georgia promotion data, we found very few kids ever held back. In 2007, for instance,  92 percent of the nearly 9,500 eighth-graders who couldn't pass the math CRCT were promoted.

Of the kids who should have been retained based on math and reading scores in 2007, only a small percentage were ultimately retained: 2.5 percent of eighth-grade testers,  1.7 percent of fifth-graders,  and 2.9 percent of third-graders.





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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.