Foster youth supporters in California are on the cusp of stitching together an education reform package that promises to dramatically improve academic outcomes for students in foster care. Now it is up to legislators in Sacramento to jolt it to life.
On June 15th, California legislators will likely vote to overhaul how California’s ailing public education system is financed; setting in motion the largest education reform the state has known for a generation.
Since January, when Gov. Jerry Brown announced his $56 billion Local Control Funding Formula, reams of code section, hearing minutes and media stories have been devoted to piecing together a reform package that satisfies the widely varied educational needs of the country’s most populous and diverse state.
From the start, Governor Brown has forcefully proclaimed that “Equal treatment for children in unequal situations is not justice.” This ideal is especially pertinent to the education of students in foster care. After months of legislative wrangling, what proponents of improving the unfairly and unnecessarily low academic outcomes of foster youth are left with are the parts of a nearly ideal body of reforms, dispersed throughout the governor’s plan, the Senate version and an outline offered by the State Assembly.
Just like Dr. Frankenstein did with his monster, supporters of California’s foster students must stitch together a plan from the existing but scattered pieces. From there it is up to the state’s leaders to jolt the reform to life. If they can do that they will set California far ahead of the rest of the nation in efforts to level the educational playing field for students in foster care.
On June 4, six of the state’s most vocal foster care advocacy organizations took that first step. The California Alliance of Children and Families Services, the California Youth Connection, the County Welfare Director’s Association, The National Center for Youth Law, the John Burton Foundation and Children Now sent a letter to the Budget Conference Committee, which is currently hammering out a final budget reconciling both the Assembly and Senate versions.
In the letter, the advocates urged state leaders to merge the best foster care policy in each branch’s education reform proposal to make a Franken-formula that would better serve students in foster care.
The Assembly proposal — outlined in a five-page hearing memo for the Subcommittee on Education Finance — calls for “duplicate counts” of foster youth, English language learners and low-income students, with additional funds being provided to school districts for these types of students. Over the last six months, advocates, have consistently argued that foster youth should be counted separately from these other resource intensive students and that additional money should be directed their way.
Even if the cost of double counting English language learners and low-income students is too steep, foster youth should be given a heavier weight in any final plan.
Foster Youth Services
The Governor’s proposal to eliminate Foster Youth Services (FYS) has come under sustained fire in the media, throughout the advocate community and in the ranks of service providers. Started in the late 1970’s, FYS has been at the vanguard of a recently exploding movement to improve the educational outcomes of foster youth
Both the Senate and Assembly versions call for maintaining FYS as a categorical program. The Assembly version has the advantage of offering additional monies.
In his May Revise, the Governor took the important step of including language aimed at making the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) share foster student data with the California Department of Education (CDE). This is critically important. No other state in the Union would have such robust data-sharing measures.
On May 28, the Senate released a revised version of Senate Bill 69, its version of the Local Control Funding Formula. In it, Senate leadership stiffened language around data sharing and pushed up the timeline for when CDE and CDSS must merge their data.
Of the two, the Senate version will help foster youth faster.
Both the governor’s plan and the Senate version mark substantive steps forward in how school districts and county offices of education are held accountable for the academic success of students in foster care.
Both plans include foster youth in the Academic Performance Index (API). This will allow districts to set performance-based goals for students in foster care – a first in the field. The Senate version is more detailed than the Administration’s current plan and should be adopted.
In addition, both plans offer language that includes foster youth in the accountability plans school districts will have to create. This is an important step forward, and, with foster youth being included in the API, offers California a real chance to help foster youth on their often bumpy educational journey.
California is very close to realizing incredible gains for students in foster care. The Franken-formula that legislators have the chance to put together will include:
- Increased per-pupil spending to districts and county offices of education based on the number of foster youth they serve.
- Maintenance of the Foster Youth Services with additional monies as proposed by the Assembly.
- Stiffened accountability, and inclusion of foster youth in the API.
- Robust, mandated data sharing between the Department of Social Services and the Department of Education.
If California’s leaders can put this plan into place they will have sent a strong message to foster youth across the state and country, and will lay the foundation for unleashing the potential of 42,000 school-aged foster youth for years to come.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the Publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change.