The cheating scandal in the Atlanta Public Schools is a tragedy.
Students were cheated out of an appropriate education. Parents were misled about progress their children were making. Taxpayers’ money was misused, and those same taxpayers are funding investigations and prosecutions.
Along the route this scandal took, some leaders, upon recognizing the situation, acted quickly to respond and change the course of the situation. For example, when Erroll Davis took over as APS superintendent, he immediately sought to rid the district of teachers alleged to have cheated, a process that included painful tribunals. He also set up remediation efforts for affected students.
The tragedy is compounded because this scandal has dragged on for years. Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard sought indictments more than a year after state investigators, appointed by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue, issued their report. Now we likely face a long and arduous prosecution, as Howard seeks to prove a widespread conspiracy. Expect witnesses and the accused to have many long days in court.
As difficult as it was, many players dealing with this sorry matter forced themselves to take appropriate and difficult actions.
Which brings us to the Metro Atlanta Chamber. From the beginning, the chamber should have sought the entire truth and supported every effort aimed at finding it. In our view, that’s not what happened.
A report April 21 by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Bill Torpy detailed how the chamber was far too slow in reaching the inconvenient truth that cheating allegations within APS warranted a no-holds-barred investigation. Worse yet, chamber leaders publicly supported a blue ribbon commission’s probe that was quickly labeled as deeply inadequate, if not approaching a whitewash. The group’s public stance came as its leaders privately expressed serious doubts about the chamber-backed commission’s processes and draft findings.
Their broad goal appears to have been to contain the damage and limit the scope of inquiry into suspicions of widespread test cheating.
Since then, chamber leaders have declined to explain why they acted as they did. Their continuing obfuscation does a disservice to both their legitimate aims and those of this metro area.
It’s time for the chamber to say, yes, we made some big mistakes. We may have been too concerned about the “brand” of Atlanta, and we may have gotten things out of order.
Only then, in our view, can the chamber get back to its important work of selling Atlanta’s many legitimate strengths. Until that happens, Atlantans will continue to harbor deep suspicions about the chamber’s motives. And those doubts will help keep metro Atlanta spinning its wheels when we should be rolling forward.
The T-SPLOST’s defeat last July provides an instructive example. The chamber in our view acted courageously in leading the campaign for the controversial penny transportation tax. Yet in a poll conducted for the AJC in November, after the T-SPLOST’s nearly 2-to-1 drubbing at the polls, fewer than half of metro Atlantans surveyed thought business leaders such as the chamber were “helpful to progress in the region.” Voters felt similarly about government too.
Such civic cynicism cannot endure. It will leave us at best treading water when we should be swimming ahead toward new horizons. At worst, such distrust of leading institutions will leave us more vulnerable to the decline that’s sapped the lifeblood of many American metros.
The chamber’s normal work is vital to guard against that happening. As the APS scandal continues to make national headlines in coming months, we must rebuild Atlanta’s image. So there’s tangible value in continuing to trumpet the “brand” of this still-successful metropolis. That’s rightly Job 1 for the Metro Atlanta Chamber.
But they can’t effectively do that job until their actions around the APS mess are clearly and plainly aired and dealt with. The best marketers can excel only when their sales pitches are built on a bedrock of truth and openness.
That can only happen after there’s no longer any doubt about the motivations and actions of the chamber. The group must quickly get its house in order.
The chamber’s leaders and the broader business community must demand that. And they must have the courage to make any changes necessary to do so.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board.