On May 11, an internal investigation was reported to have found that almost one-third of Duke Ellington School of the Arts students — 164 — allegedly are committing tuition fraud. Their principal places of residence are outside the District of Columbia, but they are not paying the $12,000 annual tuition required of non-D.C. residents who attend the District’s public schools.
Mayor Muriel Bowser has called Duke Ellington the premier arts-magnet school in the country. Its stunning renovation was completed last August, almost two years later than planned and more than $100 million over the original budget. The cutting-edge dance, fine art, photography and theater studios, stages and equipment were designed to give a tuition-free arts education to the most talented high school students in the District, who must pass rigorous audition and entry requirements.
The Duke Ellington application website states that “‘Resident’ denotes that the parent or the court-appointed guardian with whom the student resides is a District resident, and can verify residency by presenting the required documentation.” It also notes that “Ellington is not able to offer any scholarships or financial aid for non-resident tuition, nor do we know of any external financial support options.”
The residency fraud has resulted in hundreds of thousands of dollars of unpaid tuition bills, according to the Office of the State Superintendent of Education report. Accused families were given 10 days to appeal or pay fines and make arrangements to pay the current academic year’s tuition fees.
Parents and students at Duke Ellington are pushing back. On May 23, after a group of parents sued the District, the notices of fraud were withdrawn and OSSE agreed to inform suspected families more clearly how they might appeal the fraud finding and restart the clock.
Some parents argued that the OSSE report did not take into account students’ complex family lives. “Teens sometimes are raised by multiple stepparents, grandparents and other designated relatives and caretakers who live in different jurisdictions. We are being scapegoated,” Greg Smith, a parent who lives on Capitol Hill, told WTOP.
“In many ways, the most vulnerable of families are caught up in the investigation, including homeless families and those living in transitional housing,” said Eric Easter, head of a parents’ group. “There probably are people who are cheating the system and they need to be dealt with smartly and fairly. But the study was so broad it’s caught up actual D.C. families in the process.”
Neither the Duke Ellington administration nor the superintendent’s office would comment on the ongoing lawsuit.