Budget plan makes foster youth a priority, but takes away dedicated funding

May 21, 2013
FosterEd Director Jesse Hahnel

FosterEd Director Jesse Hahnel

This story has been updated. Students in foster care will be moving to the front of the class if the new school accountability rules the governor proposed in his budget revision become law.

For the first time, districts, county offices of education and state agencies will have to keep track of and account for the academic progress of their foster students under Gov. Jerry Brown’s May revision.

Although advocates applaud the new rules, they also are concerned that $15 million in state funding for these students will no longer be dedicated to foster youth under the governor’s Local Control Funding Formula.

When Brown unveiled his new funding formula, he added students in foster care as a category who should receive extra money because of the difficulties that they face. In the trailer bill to the May revision, which gives details of the budget, he goes further – making foster students their own subgroup in the Academic Performance Index. The API measures the academic achievement of the state’s students as a whole as well as subgroups of students by ethnicity and classification as English learners, low-income or receiving special education services. Schools would be required to track the progress of foster students and intervene if students are lagging behind.

These new requirements mean that districts have “very, very strong incentives” to ensure that foster youth progress academically, said H.D. Palmer, spokesperson for the state Department of Finance.

Of the 6.2 million students in California, only about 42,000 are school-age foster youth, and they are scattered among districts, making it easy for them to go unnoticed. Under the governor’s proposal, the California Department of Education and the California Department of Social Services would be required to share the information necessary to identify which students are in foster care. The State Board of Education would have until June 30, 2014, to make recommendations on how to improve reporting of educational outcomes for foster youth.

“It’s a high priority to get good, accurate data on foster kids,” Palmer said.

Currently school districts often are unaware of the number of students they have who are in foster care. These children, who are typically put in foster care because they have been abused or neglected, often are shuffled from home to home, changing schools and even school districts. Their academic achievement is lower than that of their low-income peers. Nationally, less than half of foster students graduate from high school.

Advocates for foster children applaud the governor’s efforts to make them visible. “I think there is some great language in the May revise regarding foster youth,” said Jesse Hahnel, director of FosterEd for the National Center for Youth Law, which advocates for low-income youth. “I think it is going to make a huge difference.”

However, these advocates, including Hahnel, are concerned that the requirements for county offices of education are not strong enough to ensure that the $15 million currently going to county offices for the Foster Youth Services program will remain dedicated to foster children.

Under Brown’s proposal, the money will continue to go to the county offices, but the funds can be spent on any educational purpose, while most of the accountability for foster children’s academic achievement falls on school districts. As a reader commented below, state senators are also concerned about this issue. In Senate Bill 69, the Senate’s response to the governor’s budget proposal, funding for Foster Youth Services remains dedicated. The bill was introduced by Sen. Carol Liu, D-Glendale.

Since 1981, county offices of education and a handful of districts have been receiving this separate state foster youth funding to develop programs such as academic counseling, tutoring, mentoring, 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.”

“I’m continually benefiting from it (Foster Youth Services),” said Chris Huttman, 18, who is emancipated and about to graduate from Cosumnes Oaks High School in Elk Grove Unified near Sacramento. “Whenever I needed extra tutoring, they’d set it up immediately. I’d go to a library or the tutor would come to my house.”

Now an adult and free to make his own decisions, Huttman, who has been in foster care off and on since he was 14 months old, said he has no other support system to help him transition to adulthood. He wants to be a general contractor, and Foster Youth Services is introducing him to programs that provide free tools and an entry into union apprenticeships. Staff members are also helping him get his driver’s license and find housing.

“Honestly, I didn’t know how many opportunities I had outside of high school,” he said. “I didn’t know what existed.”

An October 2012 report that evaluated the six oldest Foster Youth Services programs showed they were producing positive results in areas such as high school completion, truancy and expulsion rates. For example, foster youth in Mt. Diablo Unified in the San Francisco Bay Area had a 93 percent high school graduation rate in 2012, said James Wogan, who oversees child and family programs for the district. That is more than double the national average graduation rate for foster children, which is 45 percent, according to the report.

Under Brown’s proposal, county offices would act in more of a supervisory role if districts fail to meet their goals regarding foster children. The county offices are also expected to continue to coordinate services for foster youth with school districts and social service agencies and attempt to minimize changes in school placement.

Michael Jones works with foster youth at Elk Grove Unified.

The National Center for Youth Law, in an analysis of the governor’s proposal by Hahnel and co-author Maya Cooper, says the current list of requirements for county offices needs to be strengthened and be more specific, making county offices more accountable for student achievement and for coordinating services among social service agencies, schools, the courts and nonprofits that aid foster children.

Hahnel and Cooper emphasize that county offices are not required to maintain the current levels of funding they receive from the state for foster youth. The analysis calls for the preservation of Foster Youth Services’ categorical funding or for a “hold harmless” provision requiring county offices to at least maintain their current funding commitment to foster youth. The governor’s proposal has such a “hold harmless” clause for at-risk students in general, Hahnel says, but he would like to see foster youth mentioned specifically to protect the Foster Youth Services program.

Michael Jones, a resource teacher who works as an advocate for foster youth at Elk Grove Unified, said the governor’s new accountability plan would work if the Foster Youth Services funding remains dedicated and is tied to services. He calls the governor’s proposal to lift restrictions on the funds “naïve and irresponsible.”

“If it’s not categorical funds, I guarantee the money will disappear and not reach foster kids,” he said.

Palmer disagrees. He says the Department of Finance has “expectations that county offices will continue to provide those services” and that school districts and county offices will coordinate to make sure foster youth are not falling through the cracks.

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