The Big Break

How three old friends—a former attorney general, a perfectionist lawyer, and an ex-cop—exposed the conspiracies behind the biggest public school cheating scandal in American history

The teachers began to notice him at the beginning of the 2010 school year, the stranger in a red pickup truck and lizard-skin boots. He was in the hallways and in the classrooms of the school. He was in the principal’s office and in the lounge. He was even in the lunchroom, sitting with a food tray at one of the tables near the children, almost every day. So he became familiar over the course of a few weeks at Venetian Hills Elementary, in southwest Atlanta, but not familiar in a comforting way; the stranger’s presence set the teachers on edge. The school had a secret, and some of the teachers and even the principal would end up lying to protect it, and were encumbered with the reality of why he was there. He could appear inside their doorways startlingly, unexpectedly. He’d flash the credentials of his governor-issued ID, a smile on his face and his shirt tucked into his blue jeans, boots clacking against the floor. “Hi,” he’d say. “I’m Richard Hyde. I’m one of the governor’s special investigators, and I’d like to talk to you.”

Venetian Hills Elementary School; photograph by Christopher T. Martin

First he tried to put the teachers at ease. They were terrified of him, afraid they’d lose their jobs if they uttered a word. He had more than thirty years’ experience as an investigator, and approached them with his calming, almost hillbilly drawl, as though he were a friend stopping in from the cold. He pretended, at first, to know nothing about them, even though he’d read their files; to know nothing much about what might have gone on at the school, though he’d seen the numbers—75.4 percent of classrooms there flagged for wrong-to-right erasures on the standardized tests one year earlier. He handed out business cards and said, “If you decide to talk, call me.”

And he kept coming back. He kept parking his big truck in the school lot and eating in the cafeteria, and his reptilian boots kept clacking on the tile. He talked to secretaries and nurses, people, he says, who “knew what was going on, but had never been asked.” From the first day inside the school, when he knew he wouldn’t get a lot of cooperation, his gut told him the same thing that the wildly unbelievable standard deviations on the 2009 Georgia CRCT test erasure study had all but confirmed: There was something going on here; he could feel it, but couldn’t articulate exactly what it was.

The first person who confessed was a third-grade teacher named Jacquelyn Parks. She was a well-dressed woman with a voice loud enough to carry above the noise that spilled through the hallways of what Hyde observed to be a very loud school. When he first approached her, she wanted her students and whoever happened to be standing outside the room to hear her response, almost shouting at him cartoonishly, I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT, AND I CAN’T TALK TO YOU! In his experience this was a red flag, an embellishment akin to a wink, a silent plea for him to contact her anywhere but school. So he did.

He focused on her. He kept going back to her. She would see him in his sunglasses, see his truck, see him eating lunch, see him talking to the secretary. But it was at church, according to Hyde, where the Lord revealed that she should tell him what she knew. Hyde went to her home with a female lawyer from Balch & Bingham law firm (where he works), so Parks would feel more at ease.

On the big poster-board map of the Atlanta Public Schools system in his Downtown office at Balch & Bingham, after former attorney general Mike Bowers asked him to be the lead investigator on a case that would take them almost a year to complete, Hyde had circled the flagged schools with a red highlighter, looking for a place to begin, and had seen Venetian down in his old police territory. It had seemed little better than a shot in the dark.

A self-described “former bumblin’ beat cop who will never wear a Hickey Freeman suit,” Hyde had picked Venetian Hills because he had patrolled that area of Atlanta when he was a rookie police officer on the overnight shift. This was during the Wayne Williams case, when that part of the city thought the killer might’ve been a cop.

Parks confessed with her lawyers present in the Cumberland Room of Balch & Bingham. Bowers and Bob Wilson, the other two senior investigators called by then Governor Sonny Perdue to lead the case, were in the room, and knew this was the break they needed. They listened intently. Parks described being one of the “chosen ones” at Venetian Hills, a small group of longtime teachers trusted by the principal to gather together and change students’ test scores in a windowless room, sometimes wearing gloves. After she confessed, the investigators were able to coax her to wear a wire and record conversations. Venetian Hills was the test run of something that would turn out to be bigger than any of the three investigators imagined.

“I try not to get involved emotionally in stuff like this. I’m a hired gun,” Hyde said this past winter, in his first interview regarding the matter. “But this case really affected us all, especially the guys I worked with—Mike and Bob. I think it was much more emotional for them.”

And that’s basically how Richard Hyde cracked open the biggest school cheating scandal in American history.

If you haven’t been in a coma for the past several months, then you’ve either heard or read about the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal and, in turn, the Dougherty County Public Schools cheating scandal. Dozens of teachers in both school systems had been changing answers on a state standardized test for years, which precipitated a meteoric rise in scores. These districts were lauded for their numbers, even after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution began to question them. The paper’s local reporting would help raise questions that would lead to an investigation headed by Perdue. There were never any answers or adequate explanations, even when he ordered the two school districts to perform internal investigations—which were little more than whitewashes. A 2009 erasure study produced by the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement, in light of the paper’s reporting, concluded that on that spring’s CRCT test, a yearly exam given to all public elementary and middle school students, some external force operated to cause the wrong-to-right erasures in the subjects math, reading, and English/language arts.

The scandals made Georgia’s public education system a national joke. Maybe you’ve read some of the reports compiled by the three investigators, documents put together with the help of more than fifty Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents and eight lawyers and paralegals at two different firms. It is hard to read the reports without getting angry. The numbers and names within the text have become a matter of stark and almost unbelievable record. The narratives of each school are windows into crooked leadership and failed responsibility. Children were so harmed over such a time that it would not be a reach to wonder if there is a generation of Atlanta schoolkids who have really learned nothing, except that a handful of their teachers were willing to do anything to keep their jobs, and in some cases to bolster their reputations in regard to their peers.

There were the “chosen ones” at Venetian Hills . . . There was the principal at Parks Middle School, a man named Christopher Waller, whom Mike Bowers described as “the worst of the worst, an absolute scoundrel,” who, according to the report, recruited teachers to cheat and allegedly refused to give them raises if they weren’t “on his team”; he had a buzz phrase, “Time to go,” when it was time to change answers . . . There were teachers who wept openly when they confessed, who had cheated merely because it meant meeting the numbers, and meeting the numbers meant keeping a job . . . There were stories of students—sixth graders—who couldn’t read, who didn’t know what a lake was, a lake . . . There was the email exchange from a principal to a teacher, stating, “These children don’t really care because they don’t have parents who set standards and high expectations for them. Sorry to say this but it is true”. . . There were teachers giving students right answers by pointing or by putting check marks next to the correct bubbles; teachers tearing open plastic packets containing the tests, reading the tests, and then using a lighter to reseal the plastic; teachers having “cheating parties,” with pizza. The final impression left by the report? That students didn’t matter. Only data.

What you probably haven’t read is how the case affected the men who signed their names to the final documents, the men who wrote the report, who ultimately dismantled the two institutions by leading the investigation and dropping its findings like a batch of napalm onto the public.

Mike Bowers is one of those men. The former attorney general of the state of Georgia has been puttering around his farm on a green golf cart, driving along a limestone ridge near some cedar trees. It’s a weekend morning in late January a few miles outside Commerce, in Jackson County, and the sun brightens the silver hair on his head. He’s dressed in a green pullover and blue jeans, a ball cap. His face is a smooth, almost translucent white. A West Point graduate, his colleagues joke that he hasn’t gone a day in his life without shaving. He is seventy years old. Bowers stops the golf cart and sees his grandson, who is visiting. “Hey, can you pick up some of this shit?” he says, waving his finger at a big pile of branches. He’s not angry with the teenager—he’s actually in a good mood. He just swears a lot. That’s who he is, even at work. There are cedar branches down all over his fifty acres, because a storm blew in. His grandson is riding Bowers’s four-wheeler. His grandson’s friend is sitting on the back. They both smile at Bowers. The four-wheeler’s motor purrs like a large cat.

“Look at this place,” Bowers almost whispers. The golf cart’s wheels grind as it moves. “This is a boy’s Shangri-la. All this quiet out here . . . this is who I am.” Bowers, a wealthy man (“I make a shitpot of money; my dad would tell me I’m stealing”), a man of power (“I’m too old to give a shit”), and a lion in the Atlanta legal scene, can sort of terrify the younger lawyers at his firm, but can also come across as boyish and charming. He is prone to get those same young lawyers coffee, and to be as approachable as he is intimidating. He doesn’t really look that old. He has a collection of Black Knight footballs in his office and loves his wife’s cookies. He still hunts with his buddies. His four-wheeler isn’t exactly an aging man’s toy; he rides horses at least twenty miles a week. Bowers and his wife, Bette Rose, live in a house at the end of a gravel path here, the wooden railing on the second floor of the house draped in black-and-gold Army blankets. This is where he stays most of the week and on weekends; the couple also has a condo Downtown, three blocks from Balch & Bingham, where he is senior partner.

Bowers, a man who switched parties in 1994 and ran unsuccessfully for governor four years later and “could’ve been president,” according to Hyde, gets angry when he thinks about the investigation. His eyes narrow and he starts to talk rough.

“What we saw here, in terms of these teachers, who were primarily single moms, was outrageous, and it was sad. It was a tragedy,” he says. “We knew the children were being abused. We didn’t get to see that firsthand, but we heard about it from the teachers. I remember one, she went to the University of South Carolina, she had worked at the Board of Pardons and Paroles. And she said, ‘I cheated. I’m so embarrassed I don’t know what to tell you. If my daddy were alive, he would be so embarrassed, he wouldn’t know what to do. I have two children, I am the sole source of income for my home, I have got to keep this job. This is a big joke, Mr. Bowers. You know why it’s a joke? Because my children can’t read or write.’”

Bowers is known to lack patience, known for his penchant to want to solve problems in a short amount of time. This was the exact opposite of what the cheating investigation required. This meant his role in the investigation was not to be a “details guy.” He does not take direction well, from anyone. He is also not a terrific interviewer, because of the whole patience thing, and also his temper, which can catch fire as quick as raking a match—and perhaps even because of his cursing. “Once the train leaves the station with Mike, there ain’t no pulling it back,” said one of the other partners at his firm. During one APS interview, with the investigators and the lawyers present in the Wiregrass Room of his law firm, he slammed his hand down on the table and yelled, “This is bullshit!” He also has a hearing aid. During another interview, while one of the Balch & Bingham partners was in the middle of asking a question of a witness, Bowers turned to Wilson, and said, “Bob, LET’S GO!,” tapping his watch, thinking he was whispering—but he was actually talking loud enough for the room to go quiet and everyone to stare at him. And so he became a “big-picture guy.” He hates typing and physically can’t make a chart on a computer, so he’d sketch something out longhand and give it to one of the lawyers to actually create. There are a lot of charts in the documents. Some of those are right out of Bowers’s head. He is also good at managing people—not micromanaging them, Hyde says. One of his two stipulations when he accepted the job from Perdue (the other being to work with Hyde, his longtime friend) was that the governor’s office would not get a preview of the report. Bowers also helped rewrite the report, took the first drafts home to Bette Rose, and when she told him they weren’t good, he tore them apart.

Everything was appearance with Atlanta Public Schools, and the focus became scores,” he says. “Move the children along, to hell with are they learning—are the scores right? As a result, children never were looked at for the need for remedial education. Hell, nobody gave a rat’s ass. And they just kept getting moved. I remember a conversation with [Fulton County DA] Paul Howard. He said to us, ‘I understand now some of the young folks that come in here charged with crimes. I’ve noticed they’ll come in here at twenty or twenty-one, and they’ve gone through the tenth grade and they can’t read.’ The boys go to prison, the girls become teenage unwed mothers. It’s real simple.”

Bowers’s father was a sharecropper’s son with a sixth-grade education. Bowers himself has four degrees. “Why do I have four degrees? I was scared to death not to get all the education I could. I was taught, ‘You’d better get it all, boy.’

“This pisses me off. Immensely. I mean, I’m a father, a grandfather. I have two sons in their late forties, a daughter who is forty-two; my daughter works in a school. If she was a teacher, and someone treated her the way these teachers were treated by the administration, you would be talking to me with bars between us. Because I’d kill somebody. I wouldn’t put up with it. What they did to those teachers is outrageous. These young women, who are very vulnerable, and they get treated like this? Good God a’mighty. We had teachers faint coming out of our conference room. They were under such stress. You can ask the GBI agents, we told the teachers, look—tell us the truth. If you’ll cooperate, we will not prosecute you, and if you’ll help us, we’ll do all we can and help you keep your license with as little sanction as possible.

“I’m worried about the future of education, public in particular,” he says. “I think the confidence of the public in public education has gone way down. Things like, we need to do away with public schools and go to charter schools. That’s what people were saying to me. I’ve heard that 100,000 times. In the state. That we need to just do away with public schools, they’re not functioning. This is a pretty good argument for it. That’s what bothers me. I believe that good public schools are essential; that’s probably the biggest impact it’s had on me. I don’t know how to fix it. Because what I saw was just a disaster. An unmitigated disaster. From the board to the bottom. If today I had children, and lived in Atlanta, I’d be very leery about sending them to public schools.”

The details guy is eating a huge bowl of brown-sugar oatmeal and shaking his head, chuckling, existential laughter. Bob Wilson is sitting by the window of Thumbs Up Diner in Decatur, just around the corner from his law office. He’s looking out and watching the traffic, the walkers, the town slowly waking up. The case became Wilson’s life. It became the thing in the room, growing larger in the corner, watching over him. It strangled his personal time, erased the routines of his regular life. He didn’t even think he could do it at first. He didn’t want to get into it—he didn’t want to sink his hands into something so thick, when his wife was about to have back surgery, and juggle the case along with the normal requirements of his firm. But the governor had called him. Would he lead the investigation? No, Wilson told him, even though the governor was calling at the behest of Bowers, who had recommended him. Then the governor’s office had called back Bowers, who was riding one of those horses on his farm near Commerce. Perdue asked Bowers if he’d do it, if Wilson somehow then agreed to work on the case as well; he played the two men against each other without them knowing.

Wilson, a self-described perfectionist, became what Hyde describes as “a perfect foil” for Bowers. Like, the antimatter version. He’s a soft-spoken man, or seems to be. He doesn’t yell, doesn’t really curse, doesn’t tap his watch to interrupt other investigators, doesn’t scream in frustration at the table. Wilson created an organizational chart at the very beginning of the process, with three levels at the top—suspected high-level cheating, middle-level, lower-level—listing the name of every flagged school. There were forty-four. He put the chart on a stand in his office.

Wilson began to read up on the case, which meant articles published in the AJC, before he did most anything else. Before he began to analyze the numbers. The stories went back several years. High test score increases, questions, no answers, etc. “Those stories asked, is it possible these scores are not really legit?” he says.

“If you look at the number of schools in the state, elementary and middle, 1,800 schools give the CRCT. High schools don’t. Out of those schools, I remember one third-grade class, the year those kids took math, they ranked 803 out of 1,200 in state. The next year’s fourth graders? Those same students were number one in the state. I’m old enough to remember when the Mets went from last to first in one sweep. But as I point out, they only climbed over seven teams. These folks climbed over 802 other schools in one year. How smart do you have to be to go, ‘WHOA, GOOD GRACIOUS! How did that happen?’”

The APS system invariably never questioned those rises, according to Wilson. They always attributed them to the good works of the administration. Wilson’s question was, if one school’s class can do that—if the teaching methods are that productive—then why can’t all schools do that, and what is it, exactly, that they’re doing? When he and the other investigators began asking upper-level APS employees, “Did you and your cabinet, your curriculum, did you ever say I want you to find out how the hell you’re doing that?”—he raises his voice and almost stands up from the table—“No. No! They just stood by the damn party line.”

Wilson and Bowers knew the grading wasn’t the problem, but they went to Indianapolis to the McGraw-Hill testing site anyway, just to understand how tests are graded, and ultimately to prove that any questioning the schools did about the numbers (“such as the schools insinuating the numbers were bogus”) was unfounded. The testing center was like a giant warehouse, full of boxes packed with Scantron testing sheets from classrooms across the U.S. The box for APS was huge, around 4 x 4 x 3, and inside was a solid mass of sheets of paper. The men stood near the machine, which was like a very fast paper processor, to watch it scan the tests. Then they took randomly selected tests (and some tests flagged with high standard deviations) into a room and went over those sheets, sometimes with magnifying glasses, to see if they could tell erasures had been clearly made from wrong to right. “Hell, we didn’t even need the magnifying glasses,” Wilson says.

“We sat there and looked at them. We found more erasures than the machines did, because the machines are calibrated to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

The reason Wilson has been laughing over breakfast is because he’s remembering what it was like to begin the investigation by interviewing former APS Superintendent Beverly Hall in his office, in what he calls a “benchmark interview,” to figure out if she and APS were going to cooperate. During the interview, Wilson asked her about principals at APS. About hiring them and firing them. What she expected of them. She told Wilson that principals had three years to meet targets, and if they didn’t, they were gone. No exceptions, no excuses. “I bet she regrets to this day she told me that during the first meeting,” he says. This stringent demand for success led to what the investigators describe as a “culture of fear” throughout the system—one that trickled down, from the top. A fear of losing jobs because of numbers not met. And so cheating was an effect of the desperation to meet unachievable targets, to remain employed.

Wilson and Bowers went to see Hall’s office. They discovered that when you went into the building, you couldn’t just go up on the elevator and get off on her floor. You needed a special pass to venture into her suite. She had a gatekeeper. “She had so many roadblocks,” Wilson says. “There was no such thing as someone in APS going up to see Dr. Hall. Hell no, she wasn’t accessible. The roadblocks became clear. Hall was nobody’s fool. She had developed a public persona for herself. And in doing that, she was setting APS apart from other districts; she created these additional targets that were above and beyond No Child Left Behind. Atlanta had its own standards. They would be a quantum leap if the numbers had been met for real, and these kinds of standards will catch national attention. And it did. Atlanta got held up as the poster child as to what urban systems could achieve. It was imperative for her to create insulation for herself. In her entire tenure, we never could find that she met with a single principal one-on-one but once. In her years.”

Her office was huge. It was a shrine. She would meet with APS principals, ten to twelve at a time, in a conference room that adjoined the office—mass gatherings. She would never eat lunch or meet with a teacher one-on-one. On the walls hung test scores in frames. “You could get humiliated,” Wilson says. “It was a room of comparisons. If you were up, great. Keep it there. If you were down, get it up. You know your job.”

One of the things Wilson will never forget is that one of her representatives said, “My primary responsibility is to give the superintendent deniability.”

“You could’ve heard a pin drop in the room,” Wilson says.

The men really could’ve killed eachother. The three of them were trapped in a conference room for weeks completing the investigation, poring over legal documents with the repetition of gerbils running on a wheel. They had been in the same room with each other so often, had been so focused in each other’s company, had so questioned each other’s points of view, knew each other so well that while they were tearing apart and rewriting one of the most important reports in the history of this state, they wanted to strangle the words out of each other’s throats.

That’s an exaggeration—but only a slight one. The men were exhausted. They were irritable. They had argued and fought over the placement of every word in the 813-page Investigative Findings: Atlanta Public Schools 2009 CRCT Cheating report that was submitted to Governor Nathan Deal on June 30, 2011.

For months last spring and summer, Hyde, Bowers, and Wilson had been working from 4 a.m. to midnight just to get it done, to get it right. They had buried themselves in its minutiae, had torn apart its legalese. There were so many drafts they could not remember the number. They spent so much time in the Wiregrass Room that its corporate workspace had developed its own aura, its own gerontocratic stain; the younger lawyers at Balch & Bingham joked that the three men might combust within the room’s walls and send plumes of testosterone curling from beneath its door.

There were no windows in the Wiregrass Room. There was nothing to soothe the men, like a painting, or a plant. There was only a big wooden table, two projection screens on the wall, a Dell laptop plugged into the projector, and the numbing clack of its keyboard as Hyde typed. Wilson’s wife called herself an “APS widow.”

This past January, two of the men sat on a bench outside the Sloppy Floyd building across from the state capitol, a few months after the reports were released. Bowers had just been quoted in the New York Times describing the cheating as “an American tragedy.” The men were waiting on Bowers’s secretary to pick them up and drive them back to the office, and so they had a few minutes to kill. During the Dougherty County investigation—which was a much smaller and faster task—they had driven down to Albany together and stayed in the same Marriott, passing the local paper back and forth, and ended up reminiscing on their lives. They have known each other for more than thirty years, since Wilson was chief public defender for DeKalb County and Bowers was attorney general. Once, in a case that went to the Georgia Supreme Court, Wilson defended Bowers and won a case for him, “kicking the bar’s ass.” There had been a hearing by the state personnel board. The hearing was closed to the public. Bowers, the AG, sued the state personnel board for closing the hearing. He said it violated the open meetings law. The governor filed a bar complaint against Bowers for “suing his client.” His contention: “My client is the people of Georgia.” Wilson was Bowers’s lawyer. The Georgia Supreme Court ended up changing the bar rules. In order to enforce the law, he could sue state agencies. “That’s kicking the bar’s ass,” Bowers says.

Beverly Hall, who was named Superintendent of the Year in 2009 by the American Association of School Administrators, resigned the same month the report came out. She denies knowledge of any wrongdoing. In February, according to the AJC, a state ethics committee declared that five educators accused of cheating have lost their licenses to work in a classroom. There is an ongoing criminal investigation.

Some of the investigators who oversaw this case are worried that APS might take the confessors and kick them out, and not deal with the other suspected cheaters, because it’ll be the easy thing to do. That is, they are curious to see the disciplinary action. The men are not convinced that those who’ve confessed won’t be punished more severely.

“Where does this fit?” Bowers asks. “Is it one of the most significant cases we’ve ever done?” Yes, of course it was, Wilson says. “We couldn’t escape it.”

The men moved on from the report. They purged themselves of it, reentered the routines of their own lives, drifted back into the world. Richard Hyde continues his investigative work for the state’s Judicial Qualifications Commission, a self-described “hillbilly populist” who puts the fear of God into local judges, investigating complaints against them. He bought a new house. He went on the Atkins diet. The fact that he’d broken open the case by spending so much time at Venetian Hills became nothing more than a memory, which made him smile as he propped his lizard-skin boots on his desk, just below a wall full of thousands of bound documents that he promised to never look at again.