ATLANTA—Shelby McDonald started looking for a school for her daughter Sydney in 2009. Recently divorced and living in her parents’ basement, McDonald thought she had only one option—traditional public school. The Atlanta Public School (APS) system didn’t have the best reputation, but things in the district seemed to be improving. Standardized test scores were on the rise, and Superintendent Beverly Hall had just been recognized as the top administrator in the nation by the American Association of School Administrators.
McDonald pored over testing data for nearby elementary schools, pleasantly surprised by what she found. Many had passing rates of 85 percent or higher, a dramatic improvement. They must be doing something right, McDonald thought.
But then the Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the story of a massive cheating scandal at APS. Teachers had been telling students which answers to mark on the annual standardized test. In some cases, they changed answers before turning in the bubble-filled testing sheets. The conspiracy spread all the way to the top. The district’s remarkable improvement had been a lie. For McDonald, all the time she spent reviewing test scores was a complete waste.
Teachers denied the charges. Administrators claimed ignorance. Beverly Hall declared her innocence. But on March 29, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard indicted 35 educators, including Hall, on 65 counts of racketeering and theft for accepting performance bonuses they knew they didn’t deserve.
During a live news conference announcing the indictment, Howard stood next to Justina Collins, a mother who questioned her daughter’s high test scores but believed administrators who said the third-grader was improving. Pausing several times to wipe her eyes, Collins described in a shaky voice how her daughter, now in high school, reads far behind grade level because her falsified test scores showed she didn’t need additional help.
“The thing people have forgotten are the kids who have been cheated,” McDonald said.
But last November, voters proved they hadn’t forgotten. They passed by a 58-42 percent margin a constitutional amendment creating a statewide charter school commission that can approve applications turned down by local school boards. In Fulton County, home to APS, the amendment received 66 percent support.
McDonald said voters defied community leaders who labeled the amendment a “white, Republican” initiative with a wide margin of approval in largely African-American Atlanta neighborhoods. Parents disappointed with the local school district said “enough is enough. Let’s give these kids a chance.”
Support for school choice may be the silver lining of the cheating scandal cloud that still hangs over Atlanta Public Schools. Eric Cochling, policy analyst for the Georgia Center for Opportunity, doesn’t think the cheating scandal is solely responsible for the charter amendment’s passage statewide. Other Georgia school districts are known for ineptitude and mismanagement. But APS might have been the final straw that helped convince people something had to be done.
“The average family has nowhere to go past their local school board,” Cochling said. “They often feel like it’s a hopeless issue. They don’t have options because they don’t have money to take their kids to private schools.”
But that’s slowly changing. Parents like Shelby McDonald are looking to charter schools to provide accountability and a good education. Georgia has 122 charter schools serving about 65,000 students. The newly formed charter commission just approved nine more. McDonald, now an outspoken advocate for charter schools, said more choice benefits everyone.
“The cheating scandal shows that there has to be more control,” she said. “One group of people can’t be in charge of everything. There have to be checks and balances.”