It’s Not Just Ellington—Or Ballou

We unelected and unappointed DC citizens apparently know more about our president’s sexual proclivities than we do about residency fraud or graduation accountability in our publicly funded schools.

For instance, back in March, during her agency’s performance oversight hearing before the council’s education committee, state superintendent of education Hanseul Kang promised to provide a list of DC’s publicly funded schools her agency, OSSE, was investigating for residency fraud.

Then, during the OSSE budget oversight hearing in April, Kang talked about the Ellington residency scandal (their audit of Ellington had not been completed then) and said there were 47 schools failing OSSE’s sampling residency verification test and thus were being further investigated for residency fraud. Kang did not mention–nor did any council member–that she had promised (and failed) to deliver the list of all the schools OSSE was investigating.

This past Friday, when OSSE revealed that about half the student body at Ellington has some sort of residency issue, a reporter with NBC4, Mark Segraves, tweeted out this list of 50 schools funded by DC taxpayers that, like Ellington, have students whose families are apparently committing residency fraud.

That was helpful, especially because since March, I have inquired multiple times of the education committee for the list Kang promised–and was told the committee had nothing.

Since Friday last week, I have asked the education committee and several staff members at OSSE for the list of those 50 schools. (I am still waiting–though the chief of staff for Superintendent Kang replied to me today, saying she would get the list out.)

****UPDATE MAY 16: And here they are–both lists are posted, as of the evening of May 15, on a new webpage of the OSSE website. Here is the list of 47 schools investigated by OSSE, and here is the list of 50 schools with residency fraud.

Before that posting on the OSSE website immediately above, Mary Levy copied out the list of 50 schools from Segraves’ tweet, so you can see that 23 are DCPS, 16 are charters, and the rest (11) are privately funded schools, for public school placements. All told, per Segraves’ tweet, these schools represent 111 cases of residency fraud.

That is 111 residency fraud cases in addition to (not including!) those recently reported at Ellington.

And yet, on page 4 of its most recent annual enrollment audit report (dated February 15, 2018), OSSE observed that of a total of 215 nonresident students in DC’s publicly funded schools, 152 needed to either get documentation or pay tuition. The report also showed that of 74 nonresident students at Ellington, only 19 needed to pay tuition.

So where is reality? Ellington alone has more than 215 nonresident students according to the recent report from OSSE.

Though we unelected and unappointed citizens [still, as of May 16] have no way at the moment of knowing how that list of 50 schools was compiled nor what it really means (i.e., is it the result of 100% residency verification at every publicly funded school or only at these schools; is it the culmination of OSSE’s investigation this school year; what metrics were used; etc.), it’s helpful in showing that we have a residency problem in our publicly funded schools.

But it’s not helpful in showing the extent of the problem; why it exists; nor what can be done.

In short, this list–in combination with the OSSE enrollment audit report–suggests a reality that is entirely hidden from the public that foots the bill for these schools, thus preventing any concrete solutions for problems therein. After all, to find a solution requires seeing the problem.

Sadly, the council hearing last week on attendance only highlighted that disconnect.

(Oh, you didn’t know there was a hearing? Well, that may be because the hoi polloi was not invited to testify and the hearing did not seem well-publicized ahead of time. That said, there’s video here (search for the hearing on May 10)–as well as an announcement that there will be a hearing on graduation accountability on June 13—invited witnesses only, but you can submit written testimony.)

Anyway, during last week’s hearing (held jointly by the council committee of the whole and its education committee), the latter’s chair–David Grosso—appeared angry and said he was frustrated by what he characterized as a lack of honesty from the government witnesses testifying: acting deputy mayor for education Ahnna Smith; OSSE head Hanseul Kang; interim DCPS chancellor Amanda Alexander; and the charter board’s Rashida Young.

Oddly, given how unclear OSSE has been in its own reporting of residency fraud (as well as not picking up graduation issues ahead of reporters and refusing to include charter schools in an independent review of said graduation issues), Grosso’s anger and frustration seemed mainly reserved for one person: Amanda Alexander.

Almost 2 hours into the hearing, for instance, Grosso launched into an aria about the interim chancellor’s inability to tell him exactly how many students are in the 54% in DCPS not on track to graduate this year and exactly why each was not on track—specifically, the number not on track to graduate due to attendance issues. Before the end of his questioning, Grosso accused the interim chancellor of “chuckling” and said that he had “had it.”

Though she did not appear to me to smile, much less chuckle, Alexander noted repeatedly that DCPS did in fact know why each of the 54% of DCPS seniors are not on track to graduate this year and that it was often a combination of factors, including but not limited to attendance. Unfortunately for Alexander, she didn’t come to the hearing with percentages and numbers, as Grosso apparently had asked ahead of time.

So it was that near the end of the hearing, when other government witnesses testified, Grosso stated that DCPS did not know why that 54% was not on track to graduate, which was apparently, well, not true. Moreover, no one appeared to say anything about this issue with respect to DC charter schools.

(To be sure, Grosso appeared slightly mollified by DCPS’s response here—turns out, only 80 DCPS seniors are not on track to graduate due solely to attendance issues (out of a total of more than 1900 not on track). Grosso also gave further questions about graduation to the chancellor—but nothing for charter schools.)

That was hardly the only time in the hearing that Grosso expressed frustration with DCPS.

At one point, the conversation revolved around transit for homeless kids. Turns out, there is no busing or coordinated transit services for homeless kids anywhere in DC.

Amanda Alexander then noted that this is difficult to parse, because each situation and year is different, so arranging transit is incredibly complex.

(She could have added the fact–which the deputy mayor for education’s office knows well and remained silent about–that with school choice, kids from one neighborhood or shelter may be attending dozens of schools. And that a school a child begins the year at isn’t necessarily the school the child ends that year at.)

But no matter–you know how this ended: Grosso laid into Alexander and after saying it wasn’t rocket science, stated “Just go get them [kids at homeless shelters] and bring them to school.”

No one in the hearing seemed to reserve such ire on the subject for Kang (whose agency is actually in charge of student transit) nor the deputy mayor’s office (which studied transit and mobility issues with the cross sector task force) nor even the charter board (you know, the folks overseeing the educations of nearly HALF of DC’s public school students).

What made that hearing all the more amazing is that while Grosso laid into Alexander, no one seemed to be concerned whatsoever with the fact that Kang had never provided the list of schools investigated for residency fraud or the fact that her statements since February seemed to contradict the statements in her agency’s own February report on enrollment.

Nor did anyone seem to get upset with Kang’s incredible statement, when asked about attendance, that it’s in the summative rating in our ESSA school accountability system and “I think schools want their students to be present.” (1:39:50 in the May 10 hearing video)

(Gotta ask: Is there a time when schools do NOT want their students to be present? Or is that what will happen when the newly passed suspension bill becomes law?)

More than anything, last week’s hearing showcased the extreme disconnects between our city’s education agencies; their oversight; and actual lived experience. It’s not that anyone was being dishonest, but that problems and solutions are inevitably overlooked whenever there are such disconnects.

Worse, with all school agencies under mayoral control (well, except for the charter board, which is overseen by Buddha or cats or something), that means that money and power hang in the balance, all the while leaders with oversight get frustrated, miss the mark, or succumb to political pressure–none of which is acceptable when it comes to public education.

Here’s a more concrete example. I hope we can agree that the following statement is absurd:

Because many parents are seemingly willing to commit fraud to have their children attend Ellington, DC should invest in more arts high schools!

Absurd or not, that’s exactly how our DC education leaders talk about waitlists and the lottery: making a subset stand in for the whole, to create a story that may–or may not–be true, for an end whose purpose is unknown.

That is, absent any understanding of who is waiting to get in wherever; where they actually enroll; and why they applied wherever in the first place (none of which is well known or tracked–yeah, I am looking at you, OSSE), what we think shows demand for a program or school because of people lining up for it (legally or illegally!) could also be this:

–A group of neighbors or cohort of parents deciding to keep their kids together for a high school or middle school and/or
–Kids from a school nearby that shut down needing a nearby place to attend school and/or
–Unhappiness with teacher churn or administration at a child’s current school and/or
–Desire to be closer to the parent’s workplace and/or
–Bullying and/or
–Efficient and targeted school marketing campaigns and/or
–Sibling issues and/or
–Parents just playing the lottery and/or
–None of the above and/or
–Some combination of the above.

Demand? We hardly knew ya.

Solving problems requires seeing them in the first place–and in a democracy, that process must be shared publicly, at all times.

For that to happen in our publicly funded schools, better data is key–as is a politically independent agency to oversee it. As the council debates the budget (see here for today’s report), it is worth recalling that Grosso himself neither sponsored the recent legislation to create an education research collaborative in the office of the DC auditor–nor funded it.

That legislation is also opposed by education reform groups. Indeed, Kang spoke against it during the April OSSE budget oversight hearing, noting that it would create “burdens” for schools.

Kinda bittersweet to contemplate the burden that many DC families are shouldering now that their kids didn’t get into Ellington while kids from outside DC did so fraudulently. Or the burden that existing schools face when they lose enrollment due to the creation of new schools on the basis of fabricated demand.

Remember: To solve a problem requires seeing it. Maybe this election year will provide some clarity on the front.

2 thoughts on “It’s Not Just Ellington—Or Ballou

  1. The information you posted about Duke Ellington is incorrect. OSSE’s residency fraud investigation of that school was a comedy of errors. OSSE has now acknowledged that the vast majority of Ellington families accused of residency fraud are, in fact, DC residents. Only about 10 percent of the people “found” by OSSE to be non-residents in early 2018 are now considered non-residents.


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