Education

Investigation: MD Residents Ripping Off DC Schools While Admins Refuse To Address It

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Many of the 88,000 kids in the District of Columbia’s public and charter schools actually live in Maryland, with parents enrolling them illegally, an investigation from The Daily Caller News Foundation found.

TheDCNF spent a month observing pick up/drop off times, tallying license plates of hundreds of cars at multiple schools convenient to Maryland residents. At one school, of 212 cars, 79 had Maryland tags. The result was much the same across the board. TheDCNF estimates that of the nearly 1,000 observed plates, as many as 40 percent had Maryland plates.

Meanwhile, at some of the facilities, D.C. residents are on waiting lists hundreds of names long seeking to enroll their children in the city’s schools where they pay taxes. D.C. public charter schools had a waiting list of 18,878, as of March, 2015.

A dozen people with Maryland tags all of went directly to Maryland after picking up their kids. In the morning on other days, reporters observed that the mothers and children stayed there overnight. D.C. public schools offer free pre-kindergarten for three- and four-year-olds, plus after-school care, making it a target for people from surrounding areas who want to avoid paying for daycare.

Some of the drivers with Maryland tags presented credible justifications when interviewed, but most did not deny living in Maryland and instead expressed indignation when asked about the issue.

“Is that any of your business?” One woman dropping off kids at Ludlow-Taylor Elementary School on Capitol Hill said. She refused to say if she actually lived in D.C. and sped off.

D.C. schools cost taxpayers $29,866 per child per year, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. At that rate, a mother with three children who lives in Maryland and drops the kids off at a D.C. public school would cost D.C. taxpayers $1.3 million over the 15 years between pre-K and grade 12.

Another woman at Ludlow-Taylor with Maryland plates said “I could be driving a rental.” She would not say if she was actually driving a rental. “I could be, so you can’t be asking questions!”

D.C. officials appear to share this woman’s rationale. Ludlow-Taylor Principal Debra Bell asked reporters to leave the public sidewalk, refusing to look as multiple cars with Maryland plates unloaded kids — sometimes three per family — inches away from her.

Bell insisted that license plates aren’t a clue that should trigger further inquiry and declined to ask the parents for an explanation. Michelle Lerner, the school district’s press secretary, answered none of TheDCNF’s questions during the month-long investigation.

A dad got out of his Maryland SUV and shouted profanities and threats at TheDCNF for 20 minutes, much of it in front of his children, and demanded that a police officer — who had been called by a school administer to stop the observation — punish the reporters.

At Elsie Stokes Charter School, which has 900 more District residents on a waiting list than its current student body, residency fraud was significantly less common, but a security guard opened the doors of cars with Maryland plates and greeted the parents by name.

At Eagle Academy Public Charter, with a waiting list of 250, a Maryland SUV had a bumper sticker saying, “My tot starts early at Eagle.”

At KIPP Promise Academy on Benning Road along the D.C.-Maryland border, when the school day ends at 4:15 p.m., so many cars with Maryland tags pick up kids and head south, out of the city, instead of north, that it causes a traffic jam. The school has a waiting list of 390.

At J.O. Wilson Elementary School on Capitol Hill, a man and a woman put four kids into a Cadillac Escalade with Maryland plates.

Those seeking to reconcile the high numbers of Maryland plates allude to “complex” family situations, but the law is clear that eligibility for attendance at D.C. schools is based on where the child spends the night. Having relatives in D.C. is irrelevant unless they are the legal guardian of the child and the child lives with them.

The vast majority of the drivers TheDCNF followed turned out to be from two-parent households. One mother told TheDCNF she was a “single mother,” even though she lived with her child’s father in Maryland and had been with him for more than a decade.

Another woman casually told TheDCNF that she lived in D.C. but had “joint custody” with her ex in Maryland, even though TheDCNF video evidence showed that she, the man, and a child unambiguously live at a Maryland townhouse. A search of public records turned up no evidence of the woman using a D.C. address since 1997.

For comparison purposes, TheDCNF observed Maryland and Virginia schools and saw no out-of-state license plates, though at those schools, the majority arrived by bus or on foot. D.C. only buses special-needs students, and at the schools observed, very few students walk.

A Maryland driver drops of child off at a DC elementary school. She would not say she lived in DC. / DCNF photo

A Maryland driver drops of child off at a DC elementary school. She would not say she lived in DC. / DCNF photo

Private daycare for toddlers typically costs $20,000 to $30,000 in the metropolitan area, but by enrolling with DCPS, parents can drop their three and four year olds off in pre-K, and also leave them in after-school programs until they finish work nearby. D.C. school graduates also get in-state tuition to any public college in the nation.

Residency fraud has long plagued D.C. schools and has been discussed thousands of times on an online forum for D.C. parents.

“What I’m bitter about its the charter school where my kid is #3 on the kindergarten waitlist and watching multiple MD plate SUVs drive up to the school at 6 p.m. (with BOTH parents inside and no grandma in sight) to pick up their kids,” a typical post said.

The Council of the District of Columbia heard testimony in 2011 that people who grew up in D.C. and moved to Maryland to have kids of their own list a relative’s address as their own in school registration paperwork. Some even believe their kids are “legacies” who are entitled to attend the same school they did.

Meanwhile, families who spent their life savings on a million-dollar townhouse now find that their increasing local tax bill doesn’t assure them an education for their children at a neighborhood school, parents complain. 

The District has a traditional public school system in which neighborhood residents are guaranteed a spot and kids from other neighborhoods in the city can compete for extra spots in a lottery. It also has a highly regarded tax-funded charter school system where students can live anywhere in the city, but getting in can mean years on a waiting list.

Ludlow-Taylor is a public school, not a charter, on Capitol Hill in a mostly white neighborhood along a commuter route that runs from Prince George’s County to federal buildings downtown.

The school is almost entirely black and government statistics indicate that few of the students live in the neighborhood. Poor test scores have left neighborhood parents feeling they can’t use their own school, and must pay for private education or enroll their children in a more distant public school.

Parents of DCPS students are typically glad to have their kids mix with those from varied backgrounds, but there is one criteria that they say should be obvious: D.C.’s school system is for people who live in DC.

“It really burns me how easy DC makes it for families that live outside of the city to use up resources and then enjoy their less expensive properties and ride in their fancy SUVs,” another parent complained online.

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