By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
Atlanta's black former school superintendent and 34 other black teachers and administrators have been indicted for “racketeering” in a cheating scandal. Why aren't others like former DC Schools chancellor Michelle Rhee and her team indicted? Should we be rallying the racial wagons around Dr. Hall and the other 34? No way.
Why Was Atlanta's Beverly Hall Indicted For Racketeering While Michelle Rhee Won't Be?
By BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon
Last night former Atlanta superintendent of schools Beverly Hall, along with 35 teachers, principals and others, were indicted for racketeering. The core “criminal” activity alleged is that teachers, principals and test administrators, either under Hall's explicit direction or thanks to a “climate” that endorsed such behavior altered the results of hundreds, or thouands of standardized tests given to Atlanta's public school children.
In the political climate of Georgia, where black and white elites have been campaigning to demonize teachers, discredit the very notion of public education, and ultimately privatize it to get their hands on its multibillion dollar assets and stream of tax revenue, Fulton County's black district attorney has been able to convene a grand jury and morph cheating on tests into criminal racketeering indictments. Why is this happening?
Since the advent of No Child Left Behind in the early 1990s, schools districts have been forced by federal law to take up large portions of the instructional year giving standardized tests, and publishing ranked lists of the schools by test scores, with the lowest ranked schools branded as “failing.” The remediation for so-called “failing schools” is chiefly teacher firings, more tests, tying teacher pay and jobs to test scores, more tests, firing principals and administrators, budget cuts and still more tests, and finally, closing the school. Closed schools are generally replaced with privately owned charter schools, often with free or nearly free leases in the same buildings as the former public school which are largely exempt from many of the requirements of public schools like hiring qualified teachers, paying them a living wage, and accepting all the local students who apply.
Since scores on standardized tests, of course, track to income levels, and in the US, where residential segregation along racial and economic lines is the rule, majority black and Latino schools consistently get the lowest scores, are most often labeled as “failing” and the most frequently closed and replaced by favored charter operations. In this climate of fear cheating has become a national epidemic, with reports of industrial scale test manipulation in Los Angeles, Houston, Washington DC and elsewhere.
Dr. Hall pretty much implemented every misguided, corporate-inspired “reform” that the business and privatization-oriented consultants brought to her --- closing public schools in favor of charters, excessive testing, even purchasing the tests from firms with connections to the consultants who recommended them. Hall even helped Atlanta mayor Shirley Franklin divert over a hundred million dollars a year in tax revenues which should have gone to Atlanta's public schools into a real estate and gentrification boondoggle called the BeltLine. Hall was in every respect a loyal asset to the forces who have been demonizing teachers and dismantling public education.
At some point, the Chamber of Commerce, Invest Atlanta and other local elite representatives realized that while Dr. Hall was perfectly willing to give away the store in return for her six figure salary and perks, something as radical as the utter privatization of public education needs a crisis --- and crises need villains, with mug shots and orange jump suits, preferably with waist and ankle chains. So after getting as much as they could from Dr. Hall, they cheerfully doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. The grand jury's lurid accusations, dribbled out to the eager corporate-owned media over the last two years have created a pervasive atmosphere of crisis, in which the Chamber and its allies can get far more than any superintendent could have given them.
Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of DC's public schools enjoyed a reign of terror over a couple years in which she fired hundreds of teachers, and a number of principals, and handed over public school properties to her favorite charter schools, and ceaselessly berated parents and educators. There are widespread allegations that she too fostered a “climate of fear” under which teachers and administrators knew that if scores on expensive, irrelevant tests did not rise, their schools would be closed. But DC is not Georgia, and Michelle Rhee remains the darling of the White House, corporate media and even cruise missile liberals like Bill Maher and Jon Stewart. Rhee has made herself into the permanent propagandist of the privatizers, from her stint at Teach For America (her former boss at TFA succeeded her as DC schools chancellor) to her one-person organization, Students First.
Georgia's elite has long been uncomfortable with the inclusion of blacks in its own ranks. The current Republican governor had to personally intercede with formal and informal bodies to get Atlanta's black mayor a seat at the table, for instance, in discussions over regional transit, even though nobody could be a more loyal servant of the one percent than Kasim Reed. Atlanta's black elite may be invited to some of the meetings, and share some of the spoils, but they don't own local corporate media outlets, where the constant association of black faces in high places with embezzlement, scandal and fraud is a daily news staple.
Would Beverly Hall be under indictment if she was white? Maybe not, but this is NOT an occasion to rally the racial wagons around her and the 34 indicted teachers and administrators, not a white face among them. Dr. Hall was no friend of public education and no champion of Atlanta's public school children or teachers. If Hall had real integrity she would have spoken out years ago, and resisted the imposition of unfair “standards” and the reliance upon standardized testing as the only method to evaluate school and teacher performance. Dr. Hall could have spoken up when Shirley Franklin diverted hundreds of millions in school revenues to repay a bond issue aimed at gentrifying Atlanta. Dr. Hall had plenty of chances to stand up for Atlanta's school children in her decade in the top office. She put her career and perks first. Hall has been indicted to create lurid headlines for a “crisis” that will get the privatizers even more than she could have given them. The same goes for the teachers and administrators under her.
Just because her enablers have turned on her doesn't mean we should turn toward her. As Roland Martin found out when he made noises suggesting that black people should protest to get him his CNN commentator's job back, it doesn't work that way.
Teacher heroes are teachers who resist the turn to excessive testing, like the teachers in Seattle. Teacher heroes are the thousands of Chicago teachers who struck last fall in the face of Mayor Rahm Emanuel carrying out Barack Obama's Race To The Top program, and who are resisting the closing of more than 50 Chicago public schools this year, the largest wave of public school closings in US history. We need more heroic teachers, like some of those who are occupying the Department of Education later this month. Dr. Hall is no hero.
Michelle Rhee for her part, is a bigger villain on a bigger stage than Dr. Hall's, and with better friends. If her fortunes since being dismissed from DC are any indication, she has a long and lucrative career ahead of her.
Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report and a state committee member of the Georgia Green Party. He lives and works near Marietta GA and can be reached via this site's contact page or at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.