When the stunningly redesigned Duke Ellington School of the Arts at last reopened in August of 2017, Mayor Muriel Bowser called it the “premier performing arts high school in the country.” Completed at a cost much greater than originally planned, its cutting-edge studios, stages and equipment were meant to give a high-quality, tuition-free arts education to the most talented high school students in the District, who must pass rigorous audition and entry requirements. The immediate goal was to expand the student body to 600 students.
Now, at the end of the first school year in the updated and expanded building, the student body of some 570 students has been roiled by scandal. An investigation by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education revealed that almost one-third of Ellington students allegedly are committing tuition fraud. Their principal places of residence were found to be outside the District of Columbia and they had not paid the $12,000 annual tuition required, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
Some parents claim they are being “scapegoated.” Some students claim everyone deserves to get an education in D.C. for free.
But the Duke Ellington application forms clearly requires that, to enroll on a tuition-free basis, “a parent or the court-appointed guardian with whom the student resides, is a District resident and can verify residency by presenting the required documentation.”
The Duke Ellington School of the Arts was established in 1974 to nurture and inspire passion for arts and learning in talented students in the District. The Ellington Fund, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and George Washington University help to fund some of its programs.
But the school is mostly funded by D.C. property taxes, which are among the highest in the country. Certainly, Georgetown residential property owners pay substantially more taxes for smaller properties than do residents of the surrounding Virginia and Maryland suburbs.
The naïve belief of students that education is free to all shows their lack of knowledge of how education is paid for. But adults do know and understand that it is unfair as well as illegal to attend D.C. schools for free if you live outside of the District. If non-D.C. resident parents want their children to attend the District’s acclaimed arts-magnet school, built with pride (but also at great expense to D.C. property owners and renters), they must pay the required tuition.