The tests were the key measure the state used to determine whether it met the federal No Child Left Behind law. Schools with good test scores get extra federal dollars to spend in the classroom or on teacher bonuses.
On Friday, in announcing the indictment, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard used the story of an Atlanta third-grader to underscore the importance of the case, with teachers and administrators more focused on test scores than student improvement. He said the girl received the worst score in her reading class in 2006 and yet, when she took an assessment test, she passed with flying colors. The girl is now in ninth grade, reading at a fifth-grade level.
The high emotions surrounding the case and the extensive media publicity will also pose challenges for prosecutors and defense attorneys.
It's likely that one or more defendants will seek to have the case moved out of Atlanta or to have jurors brought in from another part of the state, which is allowed under Georgia law, said Ron Carlson, professor of law emeritus at the University of Georgia. Some of the defendants may also ask to have their trials be separate from the others in the hopes of strengthening their case, Carlson said.
And the stakes will increase the pressure on everyone involved in the case.
"I consider this one of the most important, one of the seminal developments in the history of American education law. It's the largest school teaching scandal yet recorded in the country," Carlson said. "A high-profile case like this one puts public attention and public pressure on the various moves made by prosecutors and defense attorneys."
Morgan Cloud, a professor at Emory University School of Law, said prosecutors will also have to work to explain the RICO law to jurors.
"When we think of racketeers we think of the Gambino family in New York ... people who engage in murder and drug dealing and prostitution," Cloud said.
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