A few years ago, Dr. Beverly L. Hall was the well-respected Superintendent of the Atlanta Public School system. In fact, in 2009 she was recognized as “Superintendent of the Year” by the American Association of School Administrators, and was subsequently invited to the White House by the U.S. Secretary of Education. Hall’s job was not an easy one, as she was responsible for overseeing the educational development of more than 50,000 school children in a largely underprivileged school district.
In a spectacular fall from grace, last week Hall was indicted on a wide range of corruption charges -- including making false statements, conspiracy, theft, racketeering, and influencing witnesses. The charges stem from her role in one of the largest cheating scandals in the history of public schooling in Georgia, if not the entire country.
Some may find it hard to fathom how a highly regarded public education official -- made famous because of her district’s test scores that often outshone nearby, more affluent districts -- could suffer such a tragic fall from grace.
Those who understand the lure of federal dollars and the corrupting influence they can exert on recipients, however, should not be so surprised. Hall’s sad tale is but the latest example of what happens all-too-often when state and local government officials become obsessed with chasing federal dollars.
Simply put, when federal money becomes a primary goal for local and state officials, and obtaining those rewards are tied to the recipients meeting certain quantifiable targets, such as student test scores or percentages of minority participation in businesses, the pressure to meet those numbers by whatever means possible -- including lying and cooking the books -- can become enormous. In the case of Hall and her co-conspirators, it became irresistible.
The so-called "No Child Left Behind Act," President George W. Bush’s signature piece of legislation during his first term in office, served as just such a corrupting vehicle. The law tied massive federal dollars earmarked for local school districts, to schools meeting particular test scores. Hall and those under her in the Atlanta Public School system responded by engaging in a pervasive conspiracy to alter tests and test scores so as to meet those federal criteria. The financial rewards to the school system, and to many of the individuals themselves (who received significant bonuses based on the false test results), were simply too enticing to ignore.