Everyone likes to extol the virtues of education, and parents want their children to receive the best education possible. So, who looks out for the education of our foster youth? Recent statistics paint a grim picture of the educational attainment and prospects for youth who age out of the foster care system in California. Half of these young people do not receive a high school diploma and, though most express a desire to go to college and get a degree; very few ever attain that goal. They have few resources and they lack the social safety net provided by family, friends, and community that their peers enjoy. Many foster youth switch schools several times between Kindergarten and 12th grade; these disruptions in their education cause delays and can create a myriad of problems for a youth who is attempting to get an education in the midst of chaos. In addition to all of these obstacles, some laws further encumber foster youth in their pursuit of an education. Often, these obstacles are unintended consequences of well-intentioned legislation. Foster youth do not have a large, well-funded powerhouse organization to carry their banner and fund massive ad campaigns. As a result, too often, they are ignored.
So far, 2013 has been a mixed bag for California’s foster youth as far as education is concerned. First, the good news, on January 1, 2013, Congress passed the Uninterrupted Scholars Act, which President Obama has signed into law. The Uninterrupted Scholars Act allows child welfare agencies to have access to a foster youth’s educational records without having to go through a complex legal process to obtain them. The problem arose as a consequence of a well-meaning provision in the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974, which prohibited the release of educational records without a parent’s written consent. The Uninterrupted Scholars Act exempts state or local child welfare agencies from this requirement. The reason for allowing child welfare agencies to have this access is to help avoid disruptions in a foster youth’s education. You can read more about the Uninterrupted Scholars Act in this article, written by Karen Bass and John Burton.
Now, the bad news: In California, Governor Brown has released his proposed 2013 – 2014 budget for California. For the first time in years, the budget is balanced. However, the budget again proposes eliminating specific funding (referred to as categorical funding) for Foster Youth Services (FYS), which provides vital educational assistance to foster youth. FYS provides services to help foster youth maintain as much stability in their education as possible and avoid things like losing credits and unnecessarily repeating classes or grades. FYS also provides vital assistance to youth who are preparing to age out of foster care. The problem with the elimination of categorical funding is that it presents a real potential for cash-strapped schools to overlook foster youth and FYS in order to direct funding elsewhere. The difference that FYS makes in the lives of foster children is enormous and, given the importance of education to the future earning potential and success of a child, it can have life-altering consequences for some of the most vulnerable children in our society. These programs need to be protected.
The Governor’s proposed budget plan does carve out school age foster students as one of three categories of students for whom schools will receive extra funding. This is called a weighted funding formula. While well intentioned, it essentially pays lip service to the needs of foster youth without actually solving the problem it would create by removing categorical funding for FYS. The logic behind the weighted funding formula is that school districts will need extra funds to adequately serve certain populations with additional needs. The formula takes three distinct groups, each with unique needs, and, because a student cannot qualify twice, the formula essentially provides one source of funding where there should be three. The three categories are English learners, low-income students and school age foster students. School districts will receive extra dollars for each student who falls into one of the three categories. Foster youth typically already qualify as low-income and several are also English learners. Thus, even though foster students are named as a category for which school districts will receive extra funds, the way the formula is proposed, school districts will not actually receive extra money to help meet the unique needs of foster youth because foster students will already qualify as low income. The services required to address a student’s needs due to their low-income status are separate and apart from the services required to address that same student’s needs due to their foster youth status or their English learner status. Unfortunately, the weighted formula that has been put into place does not allow for the funding to address each of these unique needs. A school district cannot obtain extra funding beyond that which they receive for the student’s low-income status to provide the additional services necessary to meet the needs of a low-income foster youth who has no parents to knock on the principal’s door and will change schools far more often, on average, than her peers who are not in foster care.
Foster Youth Services meet the needs of foster youth, do it well, and do it on a very small budget. If FYS loses its categorical funding, this service that is vital to so many students in foster care, will be in serious jeopardy. The weighted student formula, as it is currently proposed, is not the answer.
Recognition of school-age foster students as a population in need of extra assistance is an excellent start, but the formula needs to allow for extra funding to school districts for school-age foster students in addition to that which is provided to low-income students so that they will actually receive the vital assistance they need to complete their education.
You can read more about the elimination of categorical funding for FYS and governor’s proposed weighted student funding formula here.
You can read a summary of Governor Brown’s K-12 budget proposal here.