ATLANTA — The criminal trial of a dozen public school educators opened here Monday with prosecutors alleging that the teachers and administrators had engaged in a “widespread, cleverly disguised” conspiracy to cheat on standardized test scores in an effort to protect their jobs and win bonuses.
The trial is expected to last more than three months. But the broader cheating scandal has consumed this city for more than five years, and it has raised questions nationally about the wisdom of using standardized tests to judge schools and teachers, and of doling out performance bonuses to educators who meet test-score benchmarks.
In a lengthy opening statement, peppered with both slangy Southernisms and pointed indignation, Fani Willis, an assistant district attorney in Fulton County, argued that the educators had violated Georgia’s RICO statute, by using the “legitimate enterprise” of the school system to carry out the illegitimate act of cheating.
Whistle-blowers who raised questions about unlikely spikes in test scores were punished within the school system, Willis said, while cheating parties were held in which educators erased wrong answers and replaced them with correct ones.
Like all of the defendants — and like a majority of Atlanta residents — Willis is African-American. And she noted that many of the victims of the crime were struggling black students who would have been eligible to receive “millions” in federal aid for tutoring, but never received the money because test scores showed they were meeting or exceeding grade-level expectations.
Whether prosecutors will be able to convince a jury that a group of teachers engaged in racketeering has been a topic of great debate within Atlanta legal circles, and the outcome of the trial is likely to define the legacy of District Attorney Paul L. Howard, Jr., who has served as Fulton County’s top prosecutor since 1997.
The district attorney’s official website describes him as “a visionary and trailblazer whose innovative ideas have left an indelible mark on the local justice system and on the community at large.”
So far, the case has proved to be an immensely complex undertaking. After taking the bench, Judge Jerry Baxter, a gangly, balding man with a red satin bow tie, showed attorneys a white T-shirt that he said he may give out as a “dubious achievement award” to some unlucky lawyer by the end of the proceedings.
“Help I’m talking and I can’t shut up,” the shirt said.