The Wheels of the Prison Bus Go 'Round and 'Round

I am an educator who does not condone cheating. I don't allow it from my students and would not expect it from other educators. As such, I was appalled and angry when word of the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) cheating scandal emerged seven years ago. The grotesquely voyeuristic local news stations had a field day: weeks went by, with steady headlines about the corruption endemic to APS. Teachers cheating? It seemed nonsensical, like one would cancel out the other. Enrolled in an educational studies doctoral program at the time in the same city, I felt overwhelmed by the public display of dishonor. Here I was, engaging in a centuries-long legacy of fighting for some semblance of educational equity in the United States, and the very folks who were supposed to educate youth were the ones who were correcting students' answers on the standardized tests. Likely due to my educational context, I actually sought answers to what others may have considered rhetorical questions: How could teachers cheat? Why would teachers cheat?

The answers, though, were not obscure. In public schools across the country, standardized test assessment was taking place at an alarming rate. Thanks in large part to the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind policy, which built on the Reagan administration's A Nation at Risk report, passing tests became synonymous with teachers, schools, and districts' survival. The federal government called schools with high enough passing rates schools with Adequate Yearly Progress; "meeting AYP" became euphemistic for unbelievable levels of pressure, stress, and multi-directional resentment. Without funding for under-resourced schools and communities, the test scores in those schools were predictably disastrous. A climate of emergency and crisis became the norm for schools that served students from low-income families, both urban and rural. The federal mandate to disaggregate scores by race and ability level - and then to require all groups to meet the same scores - raised anxiety for teachers and administrators to achieve impossible gains. The road ahead was clear: teachers would lose their jobs. Schools would shut down. Communities would crumble.

The gains were not impossible due to students' intellect, families' laziness, or communities' lack of concern for education. Unfortunately, these were common conservative tropes. The gains were impossible because the public educational system in this country has been rigged since its inception, with school funding based on property tax values. (We also must never forget that black folks were brought here in chains and that teaching us to read was a criminal act. We have made progress. But that does not cripple our responsibility to critique and change our current sociopolitical and environmental context.)

With constant and increasing demands from "above" to reach certain scores -- without resources to do so -- educators battled through extraordinary tensions. Very real fear of job loss and school closings created an untenable situation. In APS, a predominantly black and low-income district, some educators put their livelihood ahead of their students' educational growth. After all, it seemed to be the American way. Legislative policies had maintained a separate and vastly unequal system, despite Brown vs. Board of Education; how could educators save themselves?

And so they cheated. Bad move by any measure. Period.

When I read last week that 11 of the 12 educators who had taken their cases to court (instead of settling for a plea) were found guilty of felonies and could face 20+ years in prison, the feeling in my core was reminiscent of hearing that George Zimmerman was found not guilty for killing Trayvon Martin. Or that Darren Wilson was not charged for killing Mike Brown. Or that Daniel Pantaleo was not charged for killing Eric Garner. Disbelief. Not enough oxygen. Outrage.

The images of 11 black educators being handcuffed and boarded onto a prison bus only fueled my fury. I learned from the local news that they would be denied visitors (their lawyers excepted) for two weeks -- as per county jail policy. This, of course, is one of many systematic practices that dehumanizes inmates by separating them from loved ones and other sources of support.

The news broke last Wednesday, and I had just finished teaching my last evening class before spring break. I jumped on Facebook as I was packing up my materials for break (Spotify on: Kendrick Lamar was explaining how to pimp butterflies). First in my newsfeed I saw a super fresh video that my friend Sean Saifa Wall and a small set of fellow intersex activists had created to raise awareness about intersex existence, struggle, and growing community. My heart beat hard: elation. After I shouted them out on my timeline and shared the video, I glanced to the right to see what was trending.

The first two or three stories were all about the APS educator trial's abrupt end. I clicked on the first of the three and it was from the New York Times. My heart dropped. As it frequently does. "ATLANTA -- In a dramatic conclusion to what has been described as the largest cheating scandal in the nation's history... " Damn.

If that first sentence shook you like it did me, brace yourself for the rest of the article.

I posted the article, shut my computer down, and left the building. On my commute home, I decided I would have peppermint-chamomile tea as soon as I got to my kitchen. I noticed my shoulders nearly touching my ears and commenced a deep breathing practice I have been working on to deal with my stress about living in a country where whiteness is supreme, despite constant rhetoric that it is not.

While sipping on my tea, I read the comments that folks had posted below the New York Times article. One comment stood out amongst the admittedly dozens of "likes" by that time, and many comments expressing outrage similar to my own. The comment was written by a white man with whom I attended graduate school; he a few years ahead of me. He wrote:

Well, it's bad except for the fact that they facilitated lying to kids and their parents for several years. Lots of kids were probably denied services because their scores were (artificially) too high to be eligible. And also, they weren't actually taught what they were supposed to be taught.

Sigh. This comment tired me. How did these 11 black folks get charged with felonies for lying to black kids from low-income families? How was this any different from how black kids from low-income families have historically and routinely been lied to by white-controlled public school systems since black people were "allowed" to attend school? Why is it that just now -- in April of 2015 -- black folks are being punished with incarceration because Black kids from low-income families "weren't actually taught what they were supposed to be taught"? Where were the hundreds of thousands of white educators who have not "taught the kids what they were supposed to be taught?" I wrote something like that, to which the person responded, "So no matter what they do to kids, it's justified?"

More fatigue. "No," I wrote. "... of course it's not justified." That was the point at which I decided to articulate my position on this situation and share it with others. Sonya Sanchez reminds us that it is our responsibility to verbalize and disseminate our studied positions, such that freedom is a part of the conversation.

This essay is an attempt to heed Sanchez's charge.