A foster student in Elk Grove Unified came up with the idea of creating a foster kid tree so that foster children would be noticed. Sculpted by Brock Alexander, each metal leaf represents a foster child in Elk Grove, a city near Sacramento.

A foster student in Elk Grove Unified suggested creating a foster youth tree so that foster children would be noticed. Each metal leaf on the tree, sculpted by Brock Alexander of Locke, represents a foster child in Elk Grove. Photo: Mike Jones, Elk Grove Unified.

Among the winners and losers under California’s new budget, one student group stands out as a big winner: the state’s 42,000 school-age foster children. Often neglected by their schools as well as their families, foster youth can no longer be ignored.

Schools, districts and county offices will be held accountable for the academic progress of their foster youth as a separate subgroup under the state’s Academic Performance Index. The API measures the performance of a school’s students as a whole, but also tracks the performance of separate subgroups of traditionally low-achieving students; current subgroups are based on ethnicity and family income, and also include disabled students and English learners.

California is the first state to specifically track the academic performance of foster youth, according to the National Youth Law Center. In a nod to the relatively small numbers of foster children in a state with 6.2 million students, a school or district must have only 15 foster youth to qualify as a subgroup. The other subgroups must have 30 members before a school is required to keep track.

“Foster children must have every opportunity to succeed in school and, by extension, in their careers and lives,” said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, in an email. “The inclusion of students in foster care as a target group in our accountability system, combined with the smaller group size of 15, means that these children are no longer invisible in the API. That sends a strong signal that the educational success of children in foster care is one of our priorities.”

The Legislature is expected to vote on the budget plan Friday, with the governor signing the budget into law soon after.

“We anticipate that this legislation could be a model for other states to follow,” said Maya Cooper, FosterEd policy manager with the National Center for Youth Law. FosterEd is a national program, recently launched in California, that aims to develop an education advocate for every foster youth in the state, who typically struggle academically.

Foster children, who often have been neglected or abused, lack stability and can feel isolated and alienated from their peers and school. Only 45 percent graduate from high school nationwide, according to a California Department of Education report. Foster youth tend to be overlooked within schools because there are so few of them in each district, and districts often don’t know which of their students are in foster care. Additionally, many foster students move from home to home and from school to school, sometimes in the middle of the school year and often more than once.

Foster Youth Services preserved 

In addition to the accountability requirement, the new budget keeps the $15 million in dedicated funding for Foster Youth Services, which had been eliminated as a categorical program under earlier versions of the budget.

Foster Youth Services are typically run by county offices of education and ensure that foster students get academic counseling, tutoring, vocational training and transition services (such as ensuring students don’t lose credits when they change schools and that counseling and tutoring programs continue). They also help prepare students to live on their own after they turn 18 and are emancipated – legally responsible for themselves. Advocates were concerned that if county offices could spend the funds on any educational purpose, they would be pressured by other interests to divert the money away from foster children.

The funding formula for districts in the budget also provides more funding for students based on whether they are low-income, English learners or in foster care. But because all foster students are low-income, districts will not receive additional funding for them.

FosterEd Director Jesse Hahnel

FosterEd Director Jesse Hahnel

“This budget is a huge victory for students in foster care,” said Jesse Hahnel, executive director of FosterEd, who worked with the governor’s office and Legislature to ensure the governor’s Local Control Funding Formula took notice of students in foster care. He pointed out another basic benefit in the budget for foster children: “By requiring data sharing between state and local child welfare and education agencies, the formula ensures school districts know which of their students are in foster care.”

“Foster children are our children,” Hahnel said. “We have a collective responsibility to ensure that foster children succeed in school.”

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