SPECIAL TO THE WEB
Philip A. Becnel IV, CFE
On a chilly spring morning, Zainab Al-Shammary sits in the passenger seat of her car — almost a football field's length from a townhome in Prince George's County, Maryland. Anyone who glanced at her would assume she's waiting for a friend. But Zainab has carefully parked her car facing away from the townhome, and she keeps an eye on the house through her rearview mirror. A woman and her preschool-aged son emerge from the townhome, and Zainab swivels into action. She steadies her camera with its 300mm lens on the car seat and holds down the automatic shutter to take a series of photos of the child and her mother as they get into their car and drive off to school.
Zainab is a private investigator, but she's not investigating a child custody matter. As team lead for residency fraud investigations at my firm, she's working under a contract we have with the District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE).
EXPLOITING THE SYSTEM
Residency fraud occurs when parents who reside outside of a school jurisdiction lie about their residency on enrollment forms so their children may attend public charter schools in jurisdictions where they don't reside.
"Residents are denied access to tuition-free education and services because non-residents are illegally attending schools in their place for free," says Zainab. "It's not only unlawful, but it's unfair that residents are placed on waiting lists due to others cheating and exploiting the system."
One parent of a D.C. preschooler who testified via email at a 2011 D.C. council hearing complained that her daughter's spots on the waiting lists for three of their preferred schools ranged from 200 to 400. (See Council of the District of Columbia Committee of the Whole, Committee Report, December 20, 2011.) This makes some of the District's public charter schools about as competitive as an Ivy League university.
Although this problem exists in many school jurisdictions throughout the U.S., it's a particularly serious problem in the District, which encompasses less than 70 square miles sandwiched between Virginia and Maryland. Parents who commute from these states into the city will sometimes use the D.C. addresses of relatives or friends to falsely claim residency. This enables them to take advantage of the District's highly desirable public charter school programs — including free, full-day preschool and pre-kindergarten programs — all while not paying D.C. taxes. In other words, these parents are getting a free, high-quality education for their children at the expense of D.C. taxpayers.