Crack­ing down on school en­roll­ment fraud

The Dis­trict is do­ing a right thing in a wrong way.

The Washington Post Sunday - - THE WORLD -

FOR DIS­TRICT tax­pay­ers, en­roll­ment fraud — when non-res­i­dents en­roll their chil­dren in the city’s pub­lic schools with­out paying tu­ition — is an es­pe­cially touchy sub­ject. The Dis­trict is barred from im­pos­ing a com­muter tax on Mary­land and Vir­ginia res­i­dents, so it adds in­sult to in­jury when sub­ur­ban­ites freeload in schools paid for with D.C. tax dol­lars. It would be un­der­stand­able, even laud­able, for D.C. of­fi­cials to crack down on this long-stand­ing prob­lem. But the way in which they have gone about it — en­snar­ing some par­ents who are likely in­no­cent — is not so com­mend­able.

At is­sue is the city’s han­dling of its al­le­ga­tions of wide­spread en­roll­ment fraud at the Duke Elling­ton School of the Arts. A re­port last month by the D.C. Of­fice of the State Su­per­in­ten­dent of Ed­u­ca­tion (OSSE) al­leged that 164 stu­dents at the pres­ti­gious school — nearly 30 per­cent of the stu­dent body — live out­side the city and failed to pay the re­quired tu­ition. It fol­lowed up with let­ters to the par­ents ac­cus­ing them of fraud and threat­en­ing se­vere penal­ties.

But the city was forced to with­draw the let­ters after a judge found them legally de­fi­cient in a civil case brought by par­ents who say that they were wrongly ac­cused and that they can prove they live in the Dis­trict. The city’s at­tempt at a do-over fared no bet­ter; last week it was forced to with­draw a sec­ond set of let­ters after be­ing ad­mon­ished by D.C. Su­pe­rior Court Judge Joan Zel­don that “some­one is hav­ing trou­ble fol­low­ing the law.”

Among the is­sues the at­tor­ney for the par­ents spot­lighted: the fact that most par­ents didn’t know they were un­der in­ves­ti­ga­tion un­til they re­ceived an OSSE let­ter; the OSSE’s re­fusal to tell them why their res­i­dency doc­u­men­ta­tion had been re­jected; the lack of op­por­tu­nity for par­ents to re­fute charges be­fore their cases were turned over to the Of­fice of At­tor­ney Gen­eral, which is charged with pur­su­ing en­roll­ment fraud cases.

“How does one even ac­cuse some­one of fraud with­out ever try­ing to hear from them?” Greg Smith, an Elling­ton par­ent not ac­cused of fraud but rep­re­sent­ing other par­ents pro bono, wrote to the deputy mayor for ed­u­ca­tion.

He urged the city not to go ahead with plans to is­sue a third set of no­tice let­ters but to work with Elling­ton school of­fi­cials, par­ents or an out­side me­di­a­tor to de­ter­mine which cases of fraud are le­git­i­mate and should be pur­sued. “Why not sit down in­for­mally with us and try to sep­a­rate the sheep from the goats first,” he wrote.

The city’s bun­gled han­dling of these mat­ters raises ques­tions about OSSE’s ini­tial find­ings. The city would do well to heed Mr. Smith’s ad­vice: Work quickly to re­solve the cases of peo­ple who were wrongly caught up and prop­erly fo­cus re­sources on cases of real wrong­do­ing.

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