- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 5, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown begins a round of school-oversight hearings Thursday, and this one focuses on the longstanding issue of residency.

With District schools being the butt of jokes and criticism because of their long history of poor academic performance and cost overruns, one might think proving residency would be the least of taxpayers’ worries.

To the contrary, residency is a huge problem that has been documented by local and federal authorities in recent years.

Moreover, as traditional, charter and specialized schools begin competing for students and dollars, parents are finding that out-of-state license plates are becoming as commonplace as D.C. tags.

Mr. Brown authored the D.C. Public Schools and Public Charter School Board Student Residency Fraud Prevention act to get to the heart of the matter, and he is proposing that fines be levied against anyone — anyone — who submits fraudulent information to D.C. Public Schools.

“The Office of the State Superintendent has the authority for auditing and verifying all this [residency and enrollment] information,” Mr. Brown said. “My office has received a number of complaints … but people say they don’t feel comfortable telling the principal.”

And fewer students means “less money to the school,” he added.

Indeed, while local education funding is set in stone with a per-pupil formula, the money doesn’t necessarily follow the student.

Parents in some neighborhoods, think Capitol Hill and Georgetown, effectively exercise their residency requirements by establishing cluster and feeder schools, where children simply migrate from one school in their neighborhood to the next. But not all neighborhoods have that advantage.

For example, school officials closed all traditional middle schools and junior high schools in Ward 5, which leaves parents either scrambling to find a suitable charter school or praying to get a spot after they place their names on an out-of-boundary waiting list for, say, the always-popular Alice Deal Middle School off upper Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest.

Out-of-state tags stick out a like sore thumb at D.C. schools, and the U.S. General Accounting Office, then-Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee and the D.C. Office of the Inspector General all have underscored problematic school-residency issues, especially with schools that aren’t providing the documentation to prove a student — whether a child or an adult — is indeed a D.C. resident.

Mr. Brown’s legislation reinforces Office of the State Superintendent’s burden to prove residency and creates an 800 number and mandates publicly displayed posters so anyone can comfortably blow the whistle on nonresidents.

The residency issue is widespread, said a city hall official who asked not to be named. “People don’t want their children’s school to lose money. They don’t want to be blackballed [by the principal] for complaining. Sometimes, there are not enough slots” for neighborhood youths because out-of-state youths “are taking them.”

It’s about time the District began tackling this issue.

Maryland and Virginia residents sometimes think they have an automatic right to take advantage of D.C. services, even its lousy schools. So it’s good to know the council has put it on a front burner.

Mr. Brown came into office in January with a promise to go after money that should be coming in to many agencies of the D.C. government, and the fraud prevention measure is a means to that end.

But he still should beware: The funding-first crowd will try to distract.

“We don’t have enough staff,” they’ll say. “We have not yet let a contract to do the math,” will be another oft-used but unjustifiable excuse.

The school system lays out clear guidelines for proving residency, and while those guidelines are lax, toughening them is not the issue at hand.

The point of the Student Residency Fraud Prevention act is to prevent further fraud and abuse.

Tightening residency guidelines is the next logical legislative action.

It’s that simple — for now.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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