D.C. school officials are investigating whether they spent about $7.7 million to send 118 special-education students to private schools who they were never responsible for to begin with.
Under federal law, the District must pay to send special-education students whose needs aren't served by their neighborhood schools elsewhere, often to private school. Between tuition and transportation — school buses regularly transport students to Baltimore and further — the average cost per student is $65,000 each year.
A report commissioned by the Office of the State Superintendent for Education has found that District school officials couldn't verify the residency of 118, or 7 percent, of these students, and officials are investigating whether families committed residency fraud.
But that's not the full extent of the probe. Although special-education students are the costliest cases, OSSE is also investigating 126 students enrolled in D.C. Public Schools for residency fraud, as well as 32 enrolled in public charter schools.
Non-resident tuition varies by grade level but can reach upward of $12,000 each year. There were 72 students in DCPS or charters that were identified as non-residents at the beginning of the school year and assessed $743,315. Only $156,006 has been collected.
Marc Caposino, a spokesman for OSSE, said simple "lack of payment" was to blame. Some parents withdraw their students when they get the bill, but never pay for the time their child was enrolled in D.C. schools.
Schools are responsible for collecting non-resident tuition, but it ultimately becomes the responsibility of OSSE if parents refuse to pay.
"Education is free, but not without cost," State Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley said, noting that "Maryland and Virginia residents attending public school in the District place an unfair burden on D.C. taxpayers."
Of the students potentially committing residency fraud within the District, most were at the high-school level.
Tenleytown's Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, which is over-capacity and not accepting any students from the out-of-boundary lottery, had 37 students under investigation at the beginning of the school year. As names have been cleared or students have left, 22 cases remain at Wilson.