The teacher at a Northwest elementary school was giving a local geography lesson last year, about the eight Wards that make up the District, when a student raised his hand.
“What Ward is Landover in?”she said he asked.
Put a group of DCPS parents together and anecdotes about suspected residency fraud are likely to emerge, featuring processions of cars with Maryland plates on pick-up and drop-off lines, and kids who ask for play dates with classmates in Hyattsville or Cheverly.
While license plates by themselves aren’t proof of anything, the phenomenon is in plain view every day. On Monday morning, I watched drop-off at Thomson Elementary at 12th and L. This was where five children became ill last March when a classmate brought cocaine to school. As disturbing as that incident was, there was almost as much outrage when it was learned that the kid with the cocaine lived in Prince George’s County.
Between 8:20 and 8:45 that morning, I counted 10 cars with Maryland plates that deposited students at Thomson. One woman explained that she lives in the District but her husband’s business is in Maryland. Another said she “mostly” lives in the District, staying at her Maryland home on the weekends but keeping an apartment on the 1200 block M Street during the week, near her job as a property manager. I couldn’t find the address she gave me.
Until recently, the idea of commuter parents using public schools downtown and at the District’s edge didn’t draw much outrage. But rising quality--especially in the Capitol Hill elementary schools--coupled with the advent of free, non-income-based Pre-K beginning at age 3, has made spots in those schools more valuable. As waiting lists and participation in the annual lottery swell, so has the chatter in living room meetings and on the listservs. Elected officials say they are also getting an earful.
But it’s one thing to vent among friends and another to sit down in front of a microphone and risk drawing official scrutiny to your school community. That may be why exactly three members of the public appeared Thursday to testify at a hearing on D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown’s bill to tighten residency enforcement. They were outnumbered by the government representatives (D.C. State Superintendent Hosanna Maheley; DCPS chief of Schools John Davis; D.C. State Board of Education president Ted Trabue; board member Mary Lord, and D.C. Public Charter School Board member Don Soifer) summoned by Brown to testify.
Lord, who represents Ward 2 on the state board, said residency became a “pet concern” when she began seeing out-of-state plates in front of her newly renovated neighborhood school, Francis-Stevens Education Campus in Dupont Circle.
“Of six cars at the curb, four would have Maryland plates,” Lord said. “I must have jotted down four dozen license plates --including one car that got booted one Friday morning when the parent was inside dropping off her child.”
Gina Arlotto, a veteran D.C. schools activist with children at Watkins Elementary, Stuart-Hobson Middle School and Wilson High, said she wasn’t talking about children who find themselves living with split living arrangements because of divorce or other circumstances.
“I am concerned about the kids who openly tell my kids that they live with both parents in Maryland,” Arlotto said. “I worry about the school staff when faced with a parent like the one I watched terrorize a school secretary because he was trying to use an ID and car registration with what was clearly a work address (the 1800 block of K St NW), until she finally gave in and registered him rather than make him more angry.
“I am frustrated to hear from parents who really believe that if you went to DCPS, your child is a ‘legacy’ and you are allowed to send them to DCPS even though you live outside the city.”
The current law provides penalties for families found to be from out of town, including fines and assessment of non-resident tuition. But investigations are labor intensive and cases difficult to prove, making for spotty--and sometimes non-existent--enforcement.
When families enroll at a D.C. school they are required to produce some evidence of residency. It can be a pay stub less than 45 days old with a current address, a tax payment, or proof of some D.C. government assistance such as TANF or Medicaid.
Every year an enrollment audit turns up hundreds of instances in which residency can’t be verified. But under the law as it stands, no agency has primary responsibility for enforcement. The Office of the State Superintendent of Education and the charter school board essentially leave it to the 53 individual charters. School administrators have every incentive to look the other way, avoiding any action that might diminish enrollment--and funding. In school year 2010-11, according to OSSE figures, 24 charter families (with 35 children) were confirmed residency violators.
DCPS actually seems to make something of an effort. Chief of Schools John Davis told the council Thursday that the system conducted 127 investigations involving 193 students in 2010-11. Eighty-three students were confirmed as non-residents. But DCPS is clearly unenthusiastic about playing residency cop, collecting fees or tuition.
“It is beyond the capacity of our school system to actually collect tuition from parents intent on cheating the system,” Davis said. “In fact, as an educational body, we would err every time on the side of educating children whose parents may be dishonest or simply unable to comply.”
Brown’s bill, co-sponsored by 10 other council members, designates the OSSE general counsel as lead official, and requires that violations be referred to the Office of the Attorney General. It also establishes a hotline for tips, would place warning signs at all schools and raise fines from $500 to $2,000.
“Right now we have a robust system for verifying residency,” Brown said. “Schools dedicate a great deal of time to collecting documents and preparing for the annual enrollment audit. And some local education agencies like DCPS do actually investigate suspected cases of fraud. But when it comes to enforcing the law, which requires those committing fraud to pay a fine and to reimburse the District for the value of the student’s tuition, the record is very poor.”.