By Mary Sanchez
The Kansas City Star
People love a good rant.
The one issued by an Atlanta judge last week has certainly made the rounds. Judge Jerry Baxter was all over CNN as he angrily sentenced teachers and administrators convicted in a widespread cheating scandal. He ordered some of the guilty educators to jail for seven years, a decision that sparked both cheers and cries of foul.
The Daily Beast went with the headline "Badass judge screams down cheaters" and created a montage of Baxter's pointed verbal takedowns as he sentenced 10 convicted educators.
"This is not a victimless crime," he said, noting the incredible audacity displayed. "These kids can't read."
Teachers had systematically erased incorrect answers on state mandated tests and filled in correct answers. A principal wore gloves as she worked to cheat for students, so as not to leave any telltale fingerprints. Those who tried to blow the whistle were reprimanded and ordered into silence by administrators. More than half a million dollars in bonuses were handed out to teachers during a decade, rewards for student improvement on the standardized tests.
That's money that was gained at the expense of children's futures.
The superintendent died of cancer before she could be put on trial. She had been named the national superintendent of the year for 2009.
"All I want from any of these people is just to take some responsibility," an exasperated Baxter said. "But they refuse. They refuse."
He was right to be galled that the educators turned their backs on repeated offers of admitting some responsibility and accepting a plea deal.
The six-year-scandal was triggered by the reporting of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which initially began questioning how test scores could have improved so greatly in some schools over a relatively short time period. A state investigation followed, drawing conclusions that implicated nearly 180 teachers, administrators and testing officials. A grand jury indictment named 35 educators; nearly two dozen plead guilty, avoiding trial. Only one was acquitted.
Atlanta isn't alone among public school districts that have been accused of questionable gains in student achievement in recent years. The scandals are raising questions about the pressure being put on schools over standardized testing, especially under the No Child Left Behind Act. The use of such test results to measure the professional quality and determine the salary of individual teachers is also at issue, as it provides a motive for cheating.
But Judge Baxter pointed out the most salient issue, even if he expressed it with rhetorical exaggeration.
"They are the most vulnerable children in our city, and they were short-changed," he said, referring to the students whose tests were tampered with. "They were passed on and now they're in the prison system."
Baxter has sentenced no small number of Atlanta's public school graduates who turned to lives of crime, unprepared to flourish in the world of legitimate work.
Whose fault was it that these unfortunates turned out badly? Was it absent or otherwise irresponsible parents? Was it the social and cultural isolation of poverty? Was it inadequate or dysfunctional social services agencies? Was it their schools?
A lot of systems fail poor children. And, as Atlanta's example shows, schools are too often among them.
America has been trying to determine how to compensate for decades of denying poor African-American children a proper public education. First came the desegregation cases, because even the Brown vs. Board of Education decision could not fully integrate schools in many parts of America. A succession of attempts at social engineering followed. Vouchers were the vogue for a while. Now charter schools are looked to as saviors.
Yet the more we learn about how poor kids fare at school, the more we understand that their performance is greatly influenced by factors such as who their parents and peers are. Good teachers and pedagogical approaches can make a difference, but often they can't overcome the disadvantage of a kid who was never read to as a child, much less the daily struggles of being poor.
Yet every child deserves the best chance public education can offer. There are no easy answers to the problem of helping poor kids escape the limitations of poverty. That's why it's imperative that we remain vigilant for those who damage public education with their own irresponsibility. These kids have enough hurdles without educators piling on.
No question about it; these guilty parties robbed these children. Without a true assessment of their skills and talents, these children will suffer. That's as good as stealing their dreams.
Reach Mary Sanchez is at msanchezkcstar.com.