British historian Lord Acton’s view that “All power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” first uttered in 1887, was vindicated on April 1, 2015, when a jury found that 11 Atlanta educators were guilty of violating the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) arising out of the cheating scandal which engulfed the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) in 2010. The question now is whether or not Atlanta, as well as the entire country, learns the correct solution from the cheating scandal.
Contrary to the views of many, the verdict should not end the discussion about what’s wrong with America’s public education system. Instead, I believe Atlanta and the entire country must take radical steps to heed Lord Acton’s words, reducing the chance that the absolute power of relatively few individuals over $660 billion annually and 50 million children continues to corrupt absolutely. We can make sure there are no repeats of the Atlanta cheating scandal by distributing the power to millions of parents.
I was the lawyer for the five members of the Atlanta Board of Education who refused to allow the allegations of cheating to be covered up by a “blue-ribbon” commission appointed by the APS’s then-superintendent Beverly Hall and the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce. My clients included Khaatim El, who had not yet turned 30, an even younger Courtney English, Brenda Muhammed and Yolanda Johnson, two women representing south Atlanta, as well as Nancy Meister, a real estate broker who represented Buckhead, the wealthy northern part of the city. Several of my clients were elected for the first time in November 2009: when the cheating scandal broke in January 2010, they were not prepared for the firestorm about to engulf them.
Over the nearly nine months that I represented them, I watched five ordinary citizens become true “profiles in courage” by resisting enormous pressure to accept the talking points given them by the commission in the summer of 2010, essentially exonerating Dr. Hall and her staff, before they ever saw the actual report. When it became clear that the leadership of the board of education was determined to shut its eyes to the evidence of widespread corruption and cheating, my clients voted to remove the chair and vice chair and replace them with Mr. El and Ms. Muhammed.
When they voted 5-4 to make the change, these five individuals were heavily criticized by the mayor of Atlanta, the head of the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce and its membership, as well as the heads of various foundations who threatened not to continue their financial support of APS unless they changed their vote. Dr. Hall’s in-house lawyer obtained two legal opinions, as well as authored one herself, saying the actions taken by the five were illegal and violated the charter of APS. SACS, the accrediting agency, threatened to revoke accreditation for the high schools, thereby jeopardizing the ability of APS graduates to attend college and receive Hope Scholarships.
The actions of the five ordinary citizens played a role in Governor Perdue publicly declaring the blue ribbon report a “whitewash” and hiring an independent team of lawyers to investigate, resulting in a thorough analysis by the District Attorney Paul Howard and the subsequent indictments, guilty pleas, and jury verdict. My clients’ actions also led to their being sued by the four board members who supported Dr. Hall. When they first told me they had been sued and that they were concerned about the potential of losing, I told them to relax since they were now in a court of law, with an impartial judge and clearly defined rules. Previously, they had been pilloried in the court of public opinion. Luckily, my advice turned out to be correct when Judge John Goger denied the request of the four supporters of Dr. Hall to rescind the change in leadership.
However, as further proof of the corruption of absolute power, Dr. Hall and her supporters continued to question the validity of the change of leadership, despite the fact that all nine members of the board signed a consent order, acknowledging the legality of the change. Dr. Hall’s general counsel, while employed by the school board, actually acted as the lawyer for an individual seeking the removal of a board member for alleged ethical violations. Fortunately, she was as wrong about that case as she was in her legal opinion about the validity of my clients’ actions. Atlanta’s mayor and the business community continued to question the legitimacy of Mr. El’s election as board chair, despite the fact that Judge Goger gave the only legal opinion that mattered — the election was valid.
Ultimately, Mr. El resigned from the board in July, 2011, returning to his hometown of Newark to work on turning around that city’s schools as part of Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million initiative. When he resigned, Mr. El asked these three questions:
1) … Why were these children — mostly low-income and African-American — so cavalierly denied access to America’s promise?
2) How did we — the elected officials, business leaders and the system itself — become complicit in, through our actions and in our silence, a deal with the Devil that sold out a generation of children for the sake of the city’s image and the district’s “perception of success”?
3) Who in the end benefitted from this collusion? Why did powerful people use their positions to punish those who dared to speak out?…
While the Atlanta educators who were convicted, or pled guilty in the cheating scandal, deserve some type of punishment, all Americans must answer the questions posed by Mr. El by admitting that we’ve failed to heed Lord Acton’s warning about power and corruption. I believe that, while Atlantans must now come to grips with what happened and why, the entire country needs to acknowledge that our current system of public education is an absolute monopoly that is corrupting teachers, administrators, school board members, and other elected officials. Most importantly, the public education system in America, with its absolute power, is denying millions of children, many of the low-income minority students, access to America’s promise.
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