Gov. Nathan Deal is relatively safe in predicting that "brighter days lie ahead" in Atlanta public schools.
The reason: It couldn't get much darker.
In one of the worst education scandals in modern U.S. history, a state investigation unearthed cheating by at least 178 educators at 44 of 56 Atlanta public schools investigated; 80 of the guilty confessed to it.
That works out to about four cheating adults per school. And that's merely what has been confirmed.
In short, the Atlanta school district under former Superintendent Betty Hall was an open pit of corruption. The district, one teacher told investigators, "is run like the mob."
Hall, the alleged "godmother," was named national superintendent of the year in 2009.
For as long as a decade, writes The Atlanta Journal-Constitution , the unethical and perhaps illegal practices "pierced every level of the bureaucracy, allowing district staff to reap praise and sometimes bonuses by misleading the children, parents and community they served."
The governor can try to soft-pedal it all -- "The report's findings are troubling, but I am encouraged this investigation will bring closure to problems that existed in the Atlanta public schools. I am confident that brighter days lie ahead," he said -- but it's a stinking, shameful, mortifying scandal touching every aspect of Georgia life.
More appropriate to the occasion was the reaction of Atlanta school board chair Brenda Muhammad, who called the report "absolutely devastating, because it's our children. You just don't cheat children."
In truth, they cheated all of us. The Atlanta public schools have now been confirmed to have committed fraud against all of society, by warranting students as being more highly educated than they actually were. Those involved in the cheating have dishonored a most honorable profession, and should never be allowed to step foot inside it again. A jail cell would be more fitting.
Most of all, the cheaters have hurt Atlanta public schools and the children they are charged with educating. Any legitimate gains in Criterion-Referenced Competency Test scores will now be looked at with justified skepticism. And untold numbers of young people have been sent along thinking they know more than they do.
That's blithely and willfully setting children up for failure, pretty much the opposite of a school's mission.
This year, when the Atlanta public school district puts out the "Help wanted" sign, it signals an all-out emergency. Help is desperately wanted.
This damning report by special investigators confirms what the Journal-Constitution first found to be "statistically improbable increases in test scores at two Atlanta schools" in 2008. The following year, the newspaper detected an unusual number of "suspicious score changes" on the tests. The just-concluded state investigation looked at 2009.
The report, says the newspaper, "depicts a culture that rewarded cheaters, punished whistle-blowers and covered up improprieties," including "organized wrongdoing that robbed tens of thousands of children -- many of whom came from disadvantaged backgrounds and struggled in school -- of an honest appraisal of their abilities."
This is an unmitigated indictment of that school district and a public relations calamity for Georgia and its education system. When all the details of the cheating come out -- and they will -- it will only look worse.
Indeed, writes the Atlanta newspaper:
"Teachers and principals erased and corrected mistakes on students' answer sheets.
"Area superintendents silenced whistle-blowers and rewarded subordinates who met academic goals by any means possible.
"Superintendent Beverly Hall and her top aides ignored, buried, destroyed or altered complaints about misconduct, claimed ignorance of wrongdoing and accused naysayers of failing to believe in poor children's ability to learn."
At one school, the paper notes, "teachers sneaked tests off campus and held a weekend 'changing party' at a teacher's home in Douglas County to fix answers."
Investigators cited "highly organized, coordinated efforts to falsify tests," and said "a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation permeated the APS system from the highest ranks down."
What twisted minds we're dealing with.
We don't know what criminal laws might apply to this scandal and those responsible for it, but whatever statutes do apply ought to be applied. What happened is criminal.
If it isn't, we have a pretty good idea of what the first task of the Georgia General Assembly needs to be next January.