Fraud–Or Why We Need An Independent School Data Agency

Despite council education committee chair David Grosso asking DCPS personnel at the March 1 DCPS performance oversight hearing (find the hearing recording here; Grosso comments start at minute 30) about the existence of residency fraud, and being reassured that it is not common, anectodal evidence suggests that residency fraud and waitlist jumping have occurred regularly in our public schools.

Years ago, for instance, a staff member told me that she estimated that 5% of the student body at her DCPS school did not live in DC.

That year, the 5% amounted to 30 students. If each of those students paid the $12,000 due through nonresident tuition, that would be $360,000 more that year from that school alone–or what amounts to three classroom teachers and spare change. And who knows how many real, living, breathing DC kids those other kids displaced?

When the Wilson/Wilson debacle happened just a few weeks ago, a parent (whose child was on the Wilson high school waitlist while former chancellor Wilson’s child got admitted) told me that a DC high school with a waitlist pulled a student from the bottom of the 2017 waitlist because he was a good athlete, while a school without a waitlist could not pull a student in until after their post lottery application was completed. That parent also told me that a school enrolled a student at the end of the school year to circumvent the most recent lottery that year, so technically that student didn’t “jump” the line.

In my own time as a DCPS parent, I have seen public high school coaches watching my son’s middle school baseball games–they were there to recruit. Tell me: How does that work if a school has a waitlist or is only available through the lottery?

Even if only a small fraction of such incidents actually happened, the fact that we know some clearly do occur (see here, for a refresher course) illustrates the degree to which luck and gaming have a role in our public education–when they deserve utterly no role whatsoever.

Yet, the agency that would naturally be the place where these bucks would stop–our office of the state superintendent of education, or OSSE–never seems to be on top of these practices in a meaningful way, despite having access to all of the data in our schools as well as oversight of the lottery.

For instance, on p. 7 of this document, a July 2017 review of findings on nonresident students in SY16-17, OSSE showed that despite there being almost $1 million of documented lost tuition money and fines, only $23,000 was collected. This mirrors page 235 of OSSE’s responses to the council’s oversight questions, wherein OSSE showed that it received about $74,000 in nonresident tuition settlements between November 2016 and June 2017.

While we perhaps should be glad that OSSE is not in charge of our tax and revenue office (!), these issues highlight the strange disconnect OSSE appears to have with its data and the schools that data is intimately related to.

To wit:

–At OSSE’s performance oversight hearing last week before the council, Ward 3 council member Mary Cheh wondered why OSSE didn’t sound the alarm about the graduation rates at our schools and the fact that OSSE knew attendance and PARCC scores indicated there were all sorts of problems.

–During that hearing, the Ellington residency fraud was discussed–and the head of OSSE, Hanseul Kang, promised the council a list of schools where OSSE investigated 100% of students for residency verification. But we the public do not have access to that list–despite the fact that it was compiled out of OSSE’s annual residency verification, wherein the agency checks 20% of each school’s student body. If 5% of this sample seems suspicious, OSSE investigates 100% of the student body. Ellington was identified for action because the first sample failed, so during the 100% check, a significant portion of the student body appeared to have residency issues, prompting the involvement of the attorney general’s office. Who knows what other schools have been identified to have potential residency fraud?

–We the public also do not have the annual audits of our lottery. (Yes, Virginia, there ARE annual lottery audits–just not for public consumption.) Last week, during a telephone meeting of the lottery board, the head of the lottery, Cat Peretti, said that every year there are “anomalies” in the lottery, which are examined annually by American Research Institute (AIR). Not only was I unable to find anything about AIR’s contract with our city in the DC contracts database, but the actual audits appear publicly unavailable. Peretti noted to me that discussions of those audits are available in the minutes of the lottery board–which is not quite the same as seeing the audits themselves, given that the people who comprise the lottery board are, um, sort of invested in not letting lottery scandals get into newspapers. (During that lottery board meeting last week, in fact, some board members seemed very worried about Ellington.)

Then there is the money:

That is, I calculated that since the end of September through the end of January, the mayor received about $700,000 from individuals and businesses in Maryland and Virginia, with most of those donations $500 and up. The Post recently reported that the mayor’s campaign had accumulated $1.85 million by the end of January. The amount I tallied from Maryland and Virginia alone thus comes to more than a third of the mayor’s total campaign contributions in that time.

So it is that many people in DC’s neighboring jurisdictions are (literally) invested in our mayor. Those people may reasonably expect, as a result of that investment, the mayor and her deputies to enable those people’s interests–which for all any of us knows could be sending their children to Ellington or other publicly funded schools in DC.

Moreover, though they are tasked with verifying residency, individual schools and LEAs not only have more important stuff to do (hey, like educating out kids!), but they actually have incentives to not check too much, because enrollment at every single one of our publicly funded schools means money–sometimes, even continued existence. Despite the rosy fortune telling of our office of planning, our student population has not grown commensurately with our growth of schools and available seats, so every school scrambles every year to ensure every last seat is filled.

Yet, not only do we have residency rules that are absurdly easy to cheat (really–a utility bill with name and address? Ever hear of people owning two properties and renting one out with utilities included?), but the agency tasked by our city with keeping data on our schools (um, that’s OSSE) appears to be entirely divorced from the residency verification process until late in the game, a la the Ellington residency scandal.

To be sure, Ellington is but one data point. Our city inspector general is looking into the issue of waitlist jumping at Wilson high school, along with the DC board of ethics and government accountability. And the DC auditor is doing an enrollment audit for the city.

But gees, why can’t we get the agency in charge of all this data to ensure residency verification and the lottery are part of sound, and independent, processes from the start?

After all, our city could fix residency fraud tomorrow, by cross-checking each enrolled student’s parent or guardian with whether they have filed a DC income tax return (or its equivalent) as a DC resident. OSSE admitted in its oversight responses to the council that it does so occasionally, so this process isn’t exactly unheard of.

Moreover, the mayor is uniquely positioned to ensure robust residency verification for our schools, as she is in control of all our schools, OSSE, as well as the city’s tax revenue office!

So why doesn’t it happen?

Maybe because the person with oversight of both OSSE and DCPS while everything at Ellington went down was the (former) deputy mayor for education, Jennifer Niles, a mayoral appointee who resigned when she was exposed for having committed fraud via the lottery for a fellow political appointee, the (former) DCPS chancellor, Antwan Wilson. (The lottery itself is overseen by an agency within OSSE.)

This means that neither DCPS nor OSSE are politically independent of the mayor and thus cannot be expected to do anything independent if doing so is not in the political interest of the mayor.

Sadly, this also means that the person Ms. Niles reported to–Mayor Bowser–is ultimately responsible not merely for possibly denying actual living breathing DC kids spots at Ellington (and who knows at what other public schools), but also for the fact that her city agencies did not do their jobs adequately in ensuring this current episode of potential residency fraud at Ellington was promptly dealt with, through fines or tuition paid, thus allowing the city to lose potentially as much as $600,000 in tuition at just Ellington in just this school year.

During that OSSE performance oversight hearing, David Grosso said he feared that what high level school authorities say is happening and what school staff on the ground report are two different things.

Given that the FBI, the city inspector general, the city attorney general, and the board of ethics and government accountability are currently investigating our schools for lottery, residency, absence, and graduation “anomalies,” Grosso’s fear appears well-justified.

Time for an independent OSSE.

3 thoughts on “Fraud–Or Why We Need An Independent School Data Agency

  1. This is a very creative solution, Valerie. Your solution was to make OSSE accountable to the elected school board. Perhaps. It could also be made accountable to a multi-stakeholder independent steering committee the way it is in Chicago.

    If OSSE was accountable to a broad Steering Committee made up of stakeholders, including the organizations representing teachers and principals, parent organizations, university researchers, and public education advocacy organizations, DCPS and the charter board, instead of the Mayor, then you would have something looks more like the celebrated Consortium for Chicago School Research, but even better. It would be publicly funded and accountable to the public. You’d take the politics out of it, and only the public interest would be served.

    The Consortium in Chicago has contributed to transforming Chicago into the school system with the most academic growth of any in the country this year, according to a new study by Sean Reardon.

    I had always thought that the only way to get independent research was to create another independent research entity in DC, at great cost, but perhaps you’re right. All we need to do is to take OSSE out from politicized control by the Mayor. We already invest $506 Million in OSSE each year, and the result is politicized spin in place of honest research. Perhaps the nature of OSSE can change with a structural change.


  2. Yes. The only thing I’d add is that anyone who is elected with oversight of OSSE (or frankly anything to do with our public schools) needs to not have private donors. Our city needs to decouple private donations and interests from public school oversight. Now that we have 11 years of data on mayoral control, we can see very clearly how privatizing school interests is detrimental to public involvement and public process. The current proposal to have Melissa Kim, an official with KIPP DC, become the next deputy mayor for education is just continuing the long line of prior DMEs who have been either charter school employees or with deep charter school and privatized school interests. With oversight of both OSSE and DCPS, the DME wields tremendous power and shapes our school landscapes–often without any public input whatsoever. This is not a formula for sustaining and strengthening public interest in our schools.


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