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In D.C., parents risk jail to get students into highly ranked schools

By   /   July 23, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

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RESIDENCY FRAUD: Some parents are risking jail in order to enroll their kids in good schools in the District.

By Moriah Costa | Watchdog.org

WASHINGTON, D.C. — D.C. has cracked down on parents lying to city and school officials about where they live, after an increase in tips that families from nearby Maryland and Virginia are illegally enrolling their children.

In the 2014-15 school year, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education saw a 43 percent increase in tips from the prior year.

It’s a result, the agency says, of increased public awareness.

Parents who lie about living in the district risk up to 90 days in jail and can be required to pay back tuition — up to $15,000 a year.

The city has sued two police officers who enrolled their kids in D.C. Public Schools while living outside the district.

The D.C. area is unique when it comes to school choice, and it ranks high for school-choice options. But school options in the surrounding area are limited. Education experts say the lack of school choice could be a leading factor in residency fraud.

“The problem is we haven’t created enough choices or made choice universal for everybody,” said Kara Kerwin, president of the Center for Education Reform.

“Those two states that border D.C. are very similar in their demographics and their population, yet they have done absolutely nothing to provide choice for families,” she said.

The center ranked Virginia 42nd and Maryland 41st in its 2015 charter school law rankings. D.C. was first.

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education has handled illegal enrollment since the city passed the Residency Fraud Amendment Act in 2012. The agency hires a private investigator to look into tips it receives from schools, hotlines or online.

During the 2014-15 school year, the office received 88 tips and conducted 70 investigations. Of the 38 cases that were closed, only two students were found to live outside the city.

Residency fraud isn’t unique to D.C., however.

Jason Botel, executive director of school-choice advocacy group Maryland Can, said he knows of numerous cases of parents lying about where they live to get into a good school in Baltimore County. Botel, previously executive director of KIPP Baltimore, said he had some students whose families lied about living in the city so their children could attend his school.

The fact the counties near D.C. have few, if any, charter schools is only driving parents to find other ways to give their kids a good education.

“Maryland is a place where the surrounding counties spend less on education than D.C. does, especially for low-income kids, and there are very few public school choices.”

Irene Holtzman, executive director of Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, said the best way to prevent residency fraud is for nearby counties to expand school-choice options.

“Where (students) live is determining where they go to school, and (neighborhood schools) may or may not be what they’re looking for or they may or may not be well-resourced to afford a (private school),” she said.

Maryland has reformed its charter school laws, and Botel thinks the changes will help enhance the choices available. But, he said, if lawmakers really want to expand choice they should allow nonprofits to hire teachers and principals. The law says teachers must be hired through the school district, making hiring difficult and, in turn, stifling innovation, Botel said.

Until policymakers start treating parents as consumers and stop zoning the public school system by zip code, Kerwin says, some families will continue to risk jail time so their children have the chance at a good education.

“Despite all the choices that have been created across the U.S., we still haven’t gotten to that marketplace that school choice promised,” she said.

This story was updated at 4:58 p.m. on Friday, July 24 to include updated rankings from the Center for Education Reform. 

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Moriah formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.