Amid a wave of school cheating scandals across the country, a landmark trial here is set to begin with school teachers facing up to 35 years in prison in one of the biggest academic misconduct cases in American history.
Opening statements are expected to start this month in the trial of 12 former Atlanta Public Schools employees accused of boosting students' scores by altering and falsely certifying students' answers in standardized tests.
The state's investigation implicated more than 180 teachers and administrators in 44 schools.
The case highlights what many educators say is the mounting pressure to meet testing targets in the data-driven era of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.
"This scandal is a cautionary tale," said Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Assn. of Georgia Educators, the state's largest organization for professional teachers. "If we continue to overemphasize test scores, there will be more bad apples."
The trial also has opened wounds among some residents who say that teachers and administrators on trial — all African Americans who worked in low-income neighborhoods — are being unfairly prosecuted under Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute.
"This is a witch hunt against black teachers," said the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in southeast Atlanta.
Like many African American leaders here, he said the state's investigation is a politically motivated attempt to discredit Atlanta's public schools.
"Yes, there should be some punishment — suspensions, fines, even loss of jobs — but 35 years in jail?" McDonald said. "The community did not ask for this kind of prosecution."
Atlanta Public Schools was once hailed as one of the highest-performing urban districts in the nation.
Test scores climbed so rapidly that its chief, Beverly Hall, was named National Superintendent of the Year in 2009 by the American Assn. of School Administrators.
Just a few months later, however, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a series of reports on suspicious jumps in that year's state-mandated test results.
Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue launched an inquiry, sending more than 50 investigators to elementary and middle schools to interview more than 2,100 teachers, administrators and students.
Investigators found "organized and systemic misconduct" in 44 of 56 schools and said administrators created a "culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation." The administrators used data as an "abusive and cruel weapon" to coax employees into crossing ethical lines, investigators said.
Teachers received bonuses when schools achieved 70% or more of their annual progress goals — mostly based on students' performance on standardized tests — but their jobs were threatened if they fell short.
More than 80 educators confessed to test tampering. In some schools, they huddled together in offices to correct multiple-choice papers. In one case, a principal was reported to have held "erasure parties" at her pool.
In March 2013, a Fulton County grand jury returned a 65-count indictment charging 35 teachers and administrators with taking part in a racketeering enterprise and other charges, such as making false statements and influencing witnesses.
As scores of educators were paraded in a televised "perp walk" to Fulton County Jail, former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin publicly questioned the "lynch mob mentality."
Another former mayor, civil rights leader Andrew Young, later appeared in court to plead for leniency for Beverly Hall: "It would be merciful for this court, these prosecutors, this whole city, if this trial never took place."
Hall, who is charged with racketeering, making false statements, theft and influencing witnesses, has denied any knowledge of cheating. Her trial has been postponed as she receives treatment for breast cancer. Another defendant has passed away, and 21 others have agreed to assist prosecutors in exchange for probation.
The trial for the remaining 12 teachers and administrators is almost certain to be one of the most scrutinized in Georgia history.
"Will the jury want to send ordinary teachers to prison on felony convictions?" said Ronald Carlson, chair of law emeritus at the University of Georgia.
He noted that it was rare, if not unprecedented, for teachers to be prosecuted using the racketeering statute. Prosecutors, he said, will attempt to show a conspiracy to achieve ill-gotten gain — in this case, the bonuses.
Carlson said he expects to hear two major lines of defense: Some will deny cheating occurred under their watch or by their hand, while others may admit to cheating but claim they were pressured by superiors.
Going into the trial, Gerald Griggs, a defense lawyer representing Angela Williamson, 48, a former elementary teacher, said defense attorneys would try to present a united front.
"The state cannot prove beyond reasonable doubt that my client cheated," Griggs said. "The state doesn't have the level of proof against all these teachers, and labeling Atlanta Public Schools a corrupt enterprise is overreaching."
The Atlanta educators are not the first to face criminal prosecution for cheating. Last year, the former schools chief in El Paso became the nation's first superintendent to be convicted of manipulating test scores for financial gain.
Last year, a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said that officials in 40 states detected potential cheating in K-12 tests given to public school students between 2010 and 2012. In California, the state Department of Education stripped 27 schools of their academic ratings last year because of testing irregularities.
A growing number of critics question whether the emphasis on testing leads to a better education.
"Endless practice tests and work sheets — that's not the kind of education most of us want for our children," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, which is critical of standardized tests.
In Atlanta, the new schools chief, Meria Carstarphen, has vowed to usher in a culture change to restore faith in the system.
After establishing a special cabinet to ensure more accountability, the district will continue to measure teachers according to students' tests.
Though Georgia has overhauled its state-mandated tests this year — they now rely less on multiple choice and include more open-ended questions — it is also expanding the stakes for teachers, basing 50% of their assessment on students' test results.
After receiving a $400-million grant from the federal Race to the Top program, the state will also introduce one-time merit bonuses for teachers in certain districts whose students perform well on standardized tests.
"I'd like to say we've learned that when we focus too much on testing, and not on quality teaching, we get off track," said Callahan, of the Professional Assn. of Georgia Educators. "I'm not sure that everyone has learned that lesson."