Atlanta Educators Face Twenty Years in Prison After Jury Convicts Them of Racketeering

hThe New York Times reported this Wednesday and Thursday that the jury has convicted eleven of twelve educators of conspiring to alter and inflate student scores on standardized testing utilized to gauge compliance with, and eligibility for, funding incentives under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. As we discussed in a post last summer, the educators were tried under Georgia’s Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act [“GRICO”] with prosecutors arguing that the Atlanta Public School District is the alleged racketeering enterprise.

The case arose from a 2011 investigation, which found organized and systemic cheating within the Atlanta schools, involving the efforts of 178 educators (principals and teachers) in 44 of 56 schools the investigators examined.  In pursuing the GRICO charges, prosecutors maintained that more than thirty educators participated in a conspiracy to cheat on standardized tests dating back to 2005.  The prosecution reached plea deals with 21 of the 34 defendants prior to trial and prosecuted twelve of the remaining thirteen defendants in this trial.  The other defendant, former Superintendent of Schools Beverly Hall, was not included in this trial due to illness, and she, in fact, died on March 2, 2015.

While the prosecutors justified the GRICO charges as necessary both to protect the children victimized by the cheating and to force the community to take a long look at their educational system, many of the defendants’ attorneys questioned the prosecutors’ decision to pursue the educators under a statute enacted and routinely utilized to fight organized crime.  They argued to the jury that the prosecution had overreached.  The jury obviously disagreed, and their verdict subjects those convicted to a penalty of up to twenty years in prison.  Furthermore, many of the educators were convicted of additional charges — such as providing false testimony — which could add additional years to their sentences.  With the exception of one defendant, who was pregnant, the convicted defendants were immediately taken into custody upon the issuance of the verdicts.

Could This Happen In Your District?

While Connecticut has itself experienced standardized testing cheating scandals, the scope of these local incidents pales in comparison to Atlanta’s.  To date, the Connecticut incidents have not resulted in similar prosecutions nor led to any statewide inquiries into the underlying integrity of the testing process or results.  Nevertheless, barring a successful appeal on legal grounds, the groundwork for future prosecutions based upon anti-racketeering statutes like GRICO has been laid, and to the extent that their respective states have similar criminal laws, one can be sure that prosecutors in Connecticut and elsewhere have taken note of this case and of the verdict.  Thus, it is reasonable to believe that where available, similar charges will be considered as a possible enforcement tool should any state be confronted with cheating on the scale of that reported within the Atlanta schools.