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People who defraud the taxpayers of millions of dollars should go to jail – even if they are classroom teachers.

A cheating scandal has engulfed public schools in Georgia, Florida, California and several other states and may be more far-reaching than any cheating scandal in history. The scandal involves not students caught cheating, but teachers and principals who organized wholesale cheating and falsification of answer sheets to assure the continued flow of millions of federal dollars.

Will the Obama Justice Department pursue the misuse of millions in federal education funds with the same passion it has shown in harassing the states of Arizona and Alabama on immigration law enforcement? Don’t bet on it.

The cheating by teachers and principals was done so their schools would show enough improvement to avoid the penalties for poor-performing schools in the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) program. If a school does not show improvement, it can not only lose federal funding but can be forced to close.

A recent report in Montana found that 255 of the state’s 821 schools are in danger of not meeting the NCLB goals in science and math. The law requires that 100 percent of students meet achievement standards in science and math by the year 2014. Many teachers cite the intense pressure to meet these impending federal goals as the reason for the widespread cheating.

The federal NCLB program was enacted in 2001 and sends over $20 billion annually to low-performing K-12 schools. The bulk of the funds are tied to Title I of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which targets funds to schools according to the number of students from low-income families.

“It’s no secret that we teach to the test,” said one Los Angeles school administrator. That is true, but “teaching to the test” generally means teaching students only what they need to know in order to pass the test. What is new and ugly in this scandal is that teachers went far beyond “teaching to the test.” They crossed the line and cheated to guarantee high scores for the whole class.

The scandal first broke in Georgia, where in 2010 the state began investigating 191 schools. Over 50 Georgia teachers and principals have been placed on leave, and many have resigned. The investigation is still under way, as are state-level investigations in Michigan, California, Arizona, Florida and several other states.

What happened? Teachers in Georgia gave test answers to students in advance of the test – or simply manufactured the correct answers in the teachers’ lounge afterwards. The teachers would hold parties in private homes to change the students’ answer sheets. Such practices were an open secret in many schools and were often condoned or even encouraged by administrators.

Apparently, these scams have been under way for several years. Since NCLB was launched in 2001, over $150 billion in federal tax dollars have flowed to K-12 schools as incentives for improved school performance.

The whole mess raises many disturbing questions about the corrupting influence of federal dollars on the ethical standards of the teaching profession. Questions also need to be answered about the validity of the standardized tests used to measure school performance. If parents and policymakers cannot trust the results of standardized tests, how can we know which schools are succeeding and which ones not?

Since teacher merit pay reforms rely on test results, widespread cheating raises new questions about how school boards and parents are supposed to evaluate teacher performance. For taxpayers, the question is whether the billions of federal tax dollars that have been spent in the No Child Left Behind program have been wasted.

With so much riding on the answers to these questions, you would think the Obama Justice Department would give high priority to a thorough investigation to get to the bottom of the thing. Instead, we see foot dragging and no plan for recovery of misallocated federal funds.

It is time for citizens to demand a thorough and immediate criminal investigation under the federal RICO statutes. There is strong evidence of a conspiracy to defraud the federal government. The magnitude of the cheating across several states strongly suggests a conspiracy of national scope.

Citizens must demand action, not another cover-up, by the U.S. Department of Justice, beginning with criminal indictments. Congress should hold oversight hearings to evaluate the adequacy of investigations under way in both the Justice Department and the U.S. Education Department, which administers the multi-billion dollar No Child Left Behind program.

Given the track record of Obama’s Justice Department in punishing enemies and rewarding friends, Congress has no reason to be confident that Eric Holder can be trusted to find answers to these questions. Congress must confront Attorney General Holder and demand his department pursue criminal indictments against the culprits.

To help push Congress to demand Justice Department indictments, the Rocky Mountain Foundation is launching a petition campaign. You can join fellow citizens to demand Justice Department prosecutions by signing the petition at http://therockymountainfoundation.org/.

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