In 2009, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution scrutinized test score gains in the city’s public schools and discovered a number of schools where the gains seemed improbable. The story triggered intense scrutiny by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation. Eventually nearly three dozed educators were charged with changing answers on the standardized tests from wrong to right in hopes of winning a bonus and pleasing their superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall, who put pressure on all teachers to raise scores or be humiliated.

During Beverly Hall’s tenure, the Atlanta district was celebrated for its miraculous test score gains, and she won recognition as Superintendent of the Year. She was the poster educator supposedly proving the “success” of No Child Left Behind. What she actually proved was that NCLB created perverse incentives and ruined education.

The facade of success came tumbling down with the cheating scandal.

After the investigation, Beverly Hall was indicted, along with 34 teachers, principals, and others. All but one of those charged is black. Many pleaded guilty. Ultimately, 12 went to trial. One was declared innocent, and the other 11 were convicted of racketeering and other charges. Beverly Hall died before her case went to trial.

The case was promoted by then-Governor Sonny Perdue. Ironically, the rise in Atlanta’s test scores was used by the state of Georgia to win a $400 million Race to the Top award.

One of those who was punished for maintaining her innocence was Shani Robinson, who was a first-grade teacher. She is the co-author with journalist Anna Simonton of None of The Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators.

I reviewed their book on the blog. While reading her book, I became convinced that Shani was innocent. As a first-grade teacher, she was not eligible for a bonus. Her students took practice tests, and their scores did not affect the school’s rating. Yet she was convicted under the federal racketeering statute for corrupt activities intended to produce financial gain. The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), was written to prosecute gangsters, not school teachers. Her conviction was a travesty.

Investigators offered Shani and other educators a deal: Plead guilty and you can go free. Or, accuse another teacher and you can go free. She refused to do either. She maintained that she was innocent and refused to accuse anyone else. Shani was accused by a teacher who won immunity. Despite the lack of any evidence that she changed scores, she was convicted.

Two Atlanta lawyers wrote a blog post in 2020 describing the Atlanta cheating trial as a legal outage:

The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) “cheating” scandal is a textbook example of overcriminalization and prosecutorial discretion gone amok, compounded by an unjust sentence of first-time offenders to serve years in prison. It is a glaring illustration of a scorched-earth prosecutorial mindset that has sparked a movement of reform-minded prosecutors nationwide — one which has yet to be embraced in Atlanta.

Just this past week, the six remaining educators who have insisted on their innocence went before the same judge who found them guilty. Their public defender asked to be excused from the case because he thought it was a conflict of interest to represent all six defendants. The original prosecutor, Fani Willis, continues to believe the six educators should be imprisoned. Willis is now prosecuting the case of whether former President Trump interfered in Georgia’s election in 2020.

The six educators who insist they are innocent have lived in a state of suspended animation for more than a decade. They have not gone to prison, yet. They have lost their reputations, their jobs, their teaching licenses.

They hoped that Judge Baxter might use the hearing to dismiss their case. Shani asked me to write a letter supporting her. I did.

It didn’t matter. Judge Baxter decided that the defendants should get a new public defender and return for another hearing. The case has already cost millions of dollars and is the longest-running trial in the history of the state.

The judge ordered them to return to court with their new lawyers or public defenders on March 16. At that time, the entire appeals process might start again and take years to conclude.

I contacted my friend Edward Johnson in Atlanta to ask him what he thought. Ed is a systems thinker and a sharp critic of the Atlanta Public Schools‘ leadership, which is controlled by corporate reformers who make the same mistakes again and again instead of learning from them.

Ed wrote me:

Prosecuting teachers and administers was morally wrong to begin with. Continuing to prosecute any of them is doubly morally wrong. Teachers and administers were the real victims of Beverly Hall. So prosecuting them means being willfully blind to ever wanting to learn truths about anything that would help Atlanta avoid doing a Beverly Hall all over again.

I agree.