He arrived before first light. He was dressed in a smartly cut, dark suit and a crisply pressed white shirt. The colorful silk tie he selected for the occasion was nothing less than perfect.
His name is Donald Bullock and, until a few years ago, he was a testing coordinator at Usher-Collier Heights Elementary School in Atlanta. However, if a team of state investigators and county prosecutors are to be believed, Bullock is anything but perfect. Last Friday, he became one of 35 former Atlanta Public Schools administrators and teachers indicted in what may prove to be the most pervasive,organized cheating scandal in recent memory.
The voluminous indictment reads like a Homeric tragedy, replete with misplaced intentions, unchecked greed and self-aggrandizement; reckless disregard for the educational welfare of at-risk children and a concerted effort to aggressively stonewall state investigators. Stories of burned memos, open-air threats and malicious, retaliatory firings would make for a good made-for-cable drama script.
But this isn’t a critically acclaimed episode of The Wire. The Atlanta cheating scandal is about real life, a real “wire” — real children and all too real consequences.
The litany of charges spells out 65 criminal counts, including theft by taking and influencing, false statements, perjury, and the most explosive of all: racketeering.
Five executive level administrators, six principals, two assistant principals, six testing coordinators and a gaggle of classroom teachers are among those expected to turn themselves in at the Fulton County jail on Rice Street. They will present themselves to a sheriff’s deputy, submit to the rigors of the inmate booking process and, if personal resources allow, post extraordinary bond payments to secure their release until trial. Each stands accused of orchestrating and/or participating in a scheme to falsify standardized test scores for career and monetary gain.
“Rice Street,” as the facility is commonly known, is a county jail under judicial consent decree based on its track record for overpopulation, lack of security and frequent violence against both guards and inmates. It’s the last place one would expect to find a nattily clad, college educated man like Bullock. Escorted by his defense attorney, Bullock is one of eight educators who checked into Rice Street on Tuesday. Local news cameras were camped outside to capture the unimaginable.
‘Profiting on bad public policy at the expense of our children’
Student testing has long been a part of public education as a means of measuring academic progress. Spend more than ten minutes in a U.S. classroom and you have likely faced down a page of empty ovals with a number two pencil. However, the shift came when we financially incentivized testing for schools and teachers. While well intentioned, so-called “high stakes testing” has created an environment that allows for many bad actors to flourish.
Tipped off by miraculous academic advances, Georgia state investigators say dishonest people were profiting on bad public policy at the expense of our children. Their 800-page report says that at least 178 individuals were culpable; some of them banking ill-gotten bonus checks as the schools they “served” lost funding based on fraudulent academic gains. In one example, W.L. Parks Middle School — where ironically the motto is: “excellence is our only option”— forfeited an estimated $750,000 in federal funding due to inflated test scores while its former principal Christopher Waller and some of his staffers walked home with thousands in bonuses and public accolades.
Thankfully, history will not be kind to Waller; one of former superintendent Beverly Hall’s “favorites.” His career in education is over. Despite his pristine suit, Bullock will never escape the humiliation of that pre-dawn booking photo. As a parent of children who attended and graduated from Atlanta Public Schools, I will say unequivocally that neither man deserves to be within a thousand yards of a classroom. By all accounts, Waller “juked the stats” in his own favor. He stood chest out and proud of the test scores he knew to be fake. He paid his mortgage, his light bill and car note with my tax dollars in a day when I struggled on the margins to make a better way for my family.
Families, like mine, trusted him. And he betrayed us.
The results are “irretrievable,” according to American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, for “kids, for schools and for teachers.” For her part, Dr. Hall, the alleged ringleader and a once nationally celebrated school reformer, reportedly reaped a half million dollars in performance bonuses over a ten year period, based in large part on the test scores Waller, Bullock and others delivered. Hall was lauded in the national press and greeted with open and praising arms at the White House. Her audience included Education Secretary Arne Duncan, a proponent of incentivized testing. She found safe harbor within the Atlanta business community. Most notably the Chamber of Commerce leadership questioned the propriety of the investigation until forced to face what parents like me long suspected. After all, the city’s reputation was at stake, right?
Next: no-nonsense ringleader ‘was getting results’