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Teachers and administrators in Atlanta surrendered to authorities yesterday at the Fulton County Jail. The group are among 35 Atlanta School Board employees charged in a racketeering indictment, accused of cheating in district schools. Prosecutors say the teachers and administrators were plotting to help schools meet academic goals. NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Around 7:30 in the evening, former superintendent of the Atlanta schools Beverly Hall turned herself in at the jail, escorted by attorneys.
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LOHR: Her bond was reduced from $7.5 million to $200,000. One of Hall's lawyers, J. Tom Morgan, says that amount was far too high.
J. TOM MORGAN: I haven't seen that in cases of genocide. The bond that we have now, that the D.A.'s office agreed to, is very reasonable considering there's been no violent crime, there's been no prior history or anything like that.
LOHR: The former superintendent denies that she was involved in, or had any knowledge of cheating. But prosecutors say Hall was a full participant in the conspiracy. It involved altering students' answers, and falsely certifying results, so schools would appear to be performing better than they actually were.
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LOHR: Earlier in the day, a couple of defendants covered their heads with umbrellas and coats as they hurried towards the jail. Other teachers walked determinedly, but made no comment. Several attorneys complained about the high bonds that some received, including Warren Fortson's client, who was facing a $1 million bond.
WARREN FORTSON: Well, I think the whole thing has turned into something rather ridiculous, that's all.
LOHR: Charges against 35 former educators include racketeering, making false statements and theft. Prosecutors say the defendants, including the former superintendent, received big bonuses tied to the inflated results.
MIKE BOWERS: In reality, it was totally bogus.
LOHR: That's special investigator and former Georgia attorney general Mike Bowers. He said teachers and administrators erased incorrect answers on tests, and filled in the right ones.
BOWERS: Those who did well, benefited enormously. Regardless of how, they did well. And there was no follow-up to determine how those results were obtained.
LOHR: Still, Tim McDonald - with Concerned Black Clergy - says the district attorney is focusing too much on punishing people who were under intense pressure from the federal No Child Left Behind Act. He says the law sets up impossible standards.
TIM MCDONALD: This is a failure not of teachers and superintendents and administrators; this is a failure of the system, and we have got to fix the system.
LOHR: Professor at Georgia State University's College of Education Jami Berry says this case sends a message that there are no miracles when it comes to raising test scores.
JAMI BERRY: You had children, children that weren't reading on a third-grade level, but were acing standardized tests. And when parents questioned it, they were just told, oh, no. The students are just good test-takers. And I think that those types of explanations, they're not going to be able to happen anymore.
LOHR: The Atlanta district has stronger procedures to safeguard tests, and now has a hotline to report unethical behavior. But years after the cheating scandal was discovered, parents are still concerned about students who didn't get the help they needed and now, may be falling farther behind.
Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.
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