Federal Education Overhaul: What It Means for Child Welfare, Juvenile Justice

After years of trying, the Senate and House passed a rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the legislation that drives federal policy on schools.

Child welfare and juvenile justice are hardly central issues of federal education reform. But the new bill, called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), includes some new requirements for states when it comes to the relationship between schools and those two systems.

Transportation and School of Origin

In 2008, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act mandated that child welfare agencies ensure foster children could stay in their school of origin, if that was what the youth desired or was in their best interest. It was a nice step toward maintaining stability for kids who were likely experiencing turbulence in many other aspects of their lives.

The problem is, that bill holds no sway over state or local education agencies. And they are the controllers of school buses and vans.

Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) made sure the Every Student Succeeds Act made schools a partner in maintaining stability. As we have noted in previous columns, though, he might have left a loophole.

Here is the new rule in a nutshell. By next year, local education agencies (LEA) must develop “clear written procedures” about transportation to “maintain children in foster care in their school of origin.”

In the event that this costs extra money, an LEA will provide transportation if any of the following three conditions is true:

  1. The local child welfare agency agrees to reimburse the local educational agency for the cost of such transportation.
  2. The local educational agency agrees to pay for the cost of such transportation.
  3. The local educational agency and the local child welfare agency agree to share the cost of such transportation.

The loophole, Youth Services Insider would submit, comes if neither agency agrees to pay and they do not agree on a cost share. In that scenario, it would seem, the LEA would not be on the hook for transporting youths.

This leaves a financial incentive on the table for child welfare and education agencies to not agree on a plan. Absent an agreement, schools don’t have to do extra work, and child welfare agencies can avoid extra costs and work involved in doing the right thing.

That is, admittedly, the pessimist’s view. But remember that the only reason there’s a need for this language at all is because some LEAs need to be compelled into action on this issue.

Having said that, it is still a win for child welfare. Because if a child welfare agency will pay for transportation, schools now have to provide it.

Changing Schools

When a decision is made that it is against the best interests of a child to stay in his or her school of origin, ESSA mandates that the student is “immediately” enrolled in a new school. That must happen, the bill says, even if all the appropriate enrollment records cannot be tracked down.

Following a transfer, the new school must “immediately contact the school last attended” and “obtain relevant academic and other records.”

Hopefully, the Department of Education will go further than “immediately” in its instructions to states on the legislation, and provide some specific timeframe.

Juvenile Re-Entry

States must now provide assurances that they have a process for the “timely re-enrollment of youth who are placed in the juvenile justice system, either in school or in are-entry program that best meets the needs of the student.”

Same issue as the foster youth transfer: We hope the Education Department further defines “timely” in the above clause. That word is far more vague than “immediate.”

Staying on Track

ESSA also addresses (somewhat) credit accumulation, a significant issue for youth involved in the system. Many fall a semester, a year or longer off the pace of their peers, which seriously jeopardizes their chances of graduating.

The bill requires the transfer of credits that a student earns while in a juvenile justice placement. And it also mandates that whatever educational setting a youth returns to after placement, he or she must have a chance to participate in “credit-bearing coursework.”

Left out: any requirement that credits be available for work during a juvenile justice placement. It is already the law that juvenile justice facilities provide education to its wards, but schools do not need to award credit for that work.

It’s a tricky issue. On the one hand, nobody wins when youth fall way behind the track to graduation, so juveniles deserve a chance to stay at least near pace while incarcerated.

On the other hand, you don’t want to put schools in the position of taking credits for coursework they don’t respect, which would be the case if a school viewed a juvenile facility’s schooling as substandard.

This bill is not the venue to sort this out, but future legislation really should nail down what is expected of an education offered within the walls of a juvenile placement.

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John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change
About John Kelly, Editor in Chief, The Chronicle of Social Change 1214 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at jkelly@chronicleofsocialchange.org.