State Superintendent Carey Wright says cheating districts should have to pay for investigations


JACKSON, Mississippi (AP) — State Superintendent of Education Carey Wright says that school districts guilty of cheating on state tests should have to pay the cost of investigations into that cheating.

Wright made the proposal Tuesday before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee.

“I think it’s only fair that if they’re the ones that are culpable, they should have to pay that bill,” Wright said.

After the meeting, Wright said she could see the sanction applying not only in cases where superintendents knew of wrongdoing, but possibly in cases where only principals or individual teachers knew.

Senate Education Committee Chairman Gray Tollison, R-Oxford, has introduced Senate Bill 2258, which would require principals and teachers to swear tests were given according to state rules. It would make a false oath a felony punishable by up to three years in prison and $25,000 a year.

Tollison’s bill would also give the state Department of Education the power to take sworn testimony and issue subpoenas, and shield investigative documents from public view. The state’s Commission on Teacher Licensure could discipline educators for lying about cheating or failing to report cheating, and the department could take over test administration in schools and districts under suspicion of misconduct.

House Education Chairman John Moore, R-Brandon, has introduced House Bill 451. It allows the state to take over testing and requires the sworn statement, but doesn’t criminalize behavior or give the state investigative power.

Wright said an investigation of the Clarksdale district should conclude within about six weeks. Wright wouldn’t discuss results or say if any other agencies are involved in the inquiry, leaving unclear whether criminal charges are possible. Superintendent Dennis Dupree said Tuesday he knew little of the investigation’s status, or whether law enforcement was involved. He declined to comment on whether the district, which spent $29.2 million on operations in 2013-2014, should bear the costs of the inquiry.

Dupree said Clarksdale has already offered employees new contracts for the 2015-2016 year and said that the investigation hasn’t influenced whether employees got offers to continue.

The department hired Caveon, a Utah-based firm, to investigate, agreeing to pay up to $300,000. Officials are also seeking a $1 million state appropriation to pay for the current investigation.

In August, the department said Caveon had determined there was “reasonable cause” to believe employees broke security rules on state tests, improperly inflating test scores at the city’s Heidelberg Elementary.

In the past, Mississippi has revoked professional licenses of teachers and principals involved in test cheating.

The state began investigating in May after The Clarion-Ledger reported claims that test results were falsified at Heidelberg.