Gov. Sonny Perdue chose wisely and well.
Bob Wilson and Michael Bowers, appointed last week by Perdue to lead an investigation into cheating scandals in public schools in Atlanta and Dougherty County, are experienced prosecutors. Perhaps more importantly in this context, they have also proved to be persons of good judgment, capable of sifting truth from fiction and the important from the inconsequential in what promises to be a complicated probe.
So far, previous investigations have been able to document only that cheating occurred. Armed with subpoena authority and the resources to investigate fully, Bowers and Wilson may be able to dig deeper, getting at the important questions of how the cheating happened and why.
But it’s unfortunate it had to come to this. The appointment of Wilson and Bowers is necessary because for at least the second time in this scandal, local leaders have proved more interested in protecting their institutions and their reputations than in getting at the truth. Their defensiveness and reluctance to look too closely have ended up compounding the very damage that they seek to avoid.
Here in Atlanta, Superintendent Beverly Hall and others vigorously dispute such assertion, arguing that they have responded as quickly and as aggressively as the facts allow.
In several important regards, that is undeniably true.
In Atlanta, testing security has been strengthened considerably in the wake of the scandal, and principals of the dozen schools implicated most strongly in the cheating scandal have been reassigned to other duties. Their names and those of almost 100 other school employees have also been submitted to the state for possible disciplinary action.
As Hall told the AJC last week, she has no patience with those who cheat. Any educators who altered test results “have done a terrible disservice to the children and Atlanta Public Schools, and that is a disgrace,” she said.
Certainly, the individuals who cheated or tolerated cheating by others deserve to be identified and punished. It is also true that, based on the limited evidence then available, APS officials could not have moved more aggressively against suspected staff members without compromising their right to due process and fair treatment.
However, individual responsibility represents just one aspect of the problem. As her statement above suggests, Hall has been steadfast in trying to depict the scandal as a simple series of moral failings by the individuals involved. People of integrity, she has said repeatedly, would not have cheated under any circumstances.
Hall has also pointed out repeatedly — and accurately — that there is no evidence of a broad, organized conspiracy. But that does not exhaust the range of issues that this scandal has brought to the surface.
Among the questions that Bowers and Wilson will try to answer is whether the problem was indeed limited to a dozen schools, as APS officials claim, or whether it was more widespread, as state officials suggest. Even if the lesser number proves accurate, we are left with the reality that widespread cheating occurred in a dozen schools involving more than 100 APS employees, a far more extensive problem than in any other system in the state.
That’s the question that Hall refuses to even entertain.
Personally, I can think of only two explanations: Either APS hired employees who are more prone than others to cheat, or it placed its employees in an environment in which cheating was deemed acceptable or even necessary. Either way, responsibility for creating such problems would lie at the top of the chain of command.