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Governor Jerry Brown’s new funding formula for education threatens to leave more than 40,000 school-age foster children in California without the essential support they need to succeed in school.
The governor’s proposed budget eliminates 47 of 62 “categorical” education programs, including California’s Foster Youth Services program. Local Foster Youth Services programs operate primarily through county offices of education to better coordinate with the other county agencies serving foster children. These programs work with current and former foster youth as well as school, juvenile detention, child welfare, probation department and community services agency staff to help foster youth succeed in school. Services include tutoring and mentoring, educational advocacy, data sharing, coordination, transition planning and much more.
Under the governor’s current budget proposal, school districts and county offices of education will be funded through a “Local Control Funding Formula” that will provide a base amount per pupil and a supplemental amount for students who are English learners, low-income or in foster care. The proposal is intended to give local education agencies increased control over how to spend their funds while holding them accountable, in theory, for the academic progress of these educationally underserved groups.
Unfortunately, this approach will result in tens of thousands of foster children failing to receive the educational support and services they need because:
- Few school districts have the internal mechanisms to identify which of their students are in foster care. This makes it nearly impossible for school districts to provide students in foster care the specialized services they need.
- School districts are held specifically accountable for the academic progress of English learners and low-income students. However, school districts are not required to track—nor are they held specifically accountable for—the academic performance and progress of students in foster care.
- Under the governor’s proposed local control formula, local education agencies will receive the same supplemental funds if a child is an English learner, if a child is an English learner and low-income, or if a child is an English learner, low-income and in foster care. Since every student in foster care is already categorically defined as low-income, local education agencies will not receive a single additional dollar as a result of a student being in foster care.
- Foster children are a marginalized, largely invisible population of students. Children in foster care rarely have parents or other adults speaking up on their behalf at county and local school board meetings, so locally controlled funds are unlikely to be used to benefit foster children.
Moreover, without California’s Foster Youth Services program, county child welfare agencies will find it much more expensive to comply with federal laws such as the Fostering Connections Act of 2008 (Public Law 110-351) requiring them to monitor and track the educational progress of foster children and to reduce the frequency with which foster children are moved from school to school. Foster Youth Services programs currently provide assistance to child welfare agencies to minimize changes in school placement and facilitate the prompt transfer of educational records between educational institutions when placement changes are necessary. The counties will have to continue doing this, by federal mandate, even without the Foster Youth Services funding.
Foster children face a unique set of educational challenges. Nationwide, their educational outcomes are significantly worse than those of other similarly economically disadvantaged students. When compared with the general population, foster children:
- Have significantly higher rates of absenteeism and disciplinary referrals;
- Are more likely to perform below grade level (75 percent perform below grade level);
- Are about twice as likely to be held back in school (83 percent are held back by third grade);
- Drop out of school nearly twice as frequently (only 50 percent obtain a high school diploma/GED); and
- Attend a four-year college at a significantly lower rate (fewer than 3 percent do so).
Overcoming these unique educational challenges requires specialized supports different from those provided to disadvantaged children generally, such as coordinating among all the agencies involved in a foster child’s day-to-day routines, both during and after school. Not only have California’s existing Foster Youth Services programs accomplished their objectives to improve the educational outcomes of foster children, but they also serve as a model nationwide. For example, studies estimate that approximately 17% of foster youth nationally have been expelled at least once. A study of 2,645 students served by California’s Foster Youth Services core district programs found that only 0.69% faced expulsion.
A recent legislative report to the governor and Legislature, written by the California Department of Education, found:
While many foster youth are at increased risk of failure in school, the services provided through the [Foster Youth Services] Programs offset this risk and increase foster youth opportunities for success in school. Evidence of the positive impact of these services is found in the outcome data on academic gains, expulsion rates, and attendance rates . . . . In addition, these programs support foster youth in experiencing a sense of school “connectedness,” completing their education programs, and making a smooth transition to adult life.
The report further notes that responsible leadership “requires California to meet its obligation to care for and nurture all foster children by investing the resources necessary to promote their success. Failure to do so will result in greater fiscal and human costs in terms of increased poverty, unemployment, homelessness, incarceration, and welfare dependency.”
If the Foster Youth Services programs are eliminated, California’s foster children are likely to drop further behind in school, until many drop out. Ensuring these vulnerable students receive the supports they need in school would result in long-term cost savings to the state and could make a dramatic difference to their lives. It is therefore in California’s best interest—and it is critically important to California’s more than 40,000 school-age foster children—that the Foster Youth Services program be preserved.
Maya Cooper is an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law and works as a policy manager in the Foster Youth Education (FosterEd) Initiative, where she focuses on improving the educational outcomes of children and youth in foster care across the state of California.
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