Earlier this month, a Rhode Island state senator introduced a bill that would compel the state’s foster care agency to split the cost of transporting foster youth to school with the education system.
This is the latest development to stem from the Ocean State’s struggles to live up to a set of foster care requirements written into the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed by President Barack Obama in December 2015. The law stated that those mandates, aimed at improving foster children’s educational stability, had to be fully implemented by December 10, 2016.
At least 10 states, including Rhode Island, have either outright failed or are struggling in their implementation of Every Student Succeeds’ foster care transportation provision. While many states claim to be complying with the law on this front, it remains unclear how many have done so fully.
The federal law made it school districts’ responsibility to ensure that foster kids had a ride to their so-called “school of origin,” an invariably costly proposition given that foster youth often bounce from home to home and cross school district lines.
While ESSA didn’t specify whether the foster care system or school districts were on the hook to pay for the transportation, a first-of-its-kind decision by the Rhode Island Department of Education that went into effect in January made clear that a child’s home school district should bear the full cost of getting foster youth to school.
The district that would likely feel this the most in Rhode Island is the Woonsocket Education Department, which Assistant Superintendent Jenny Chan-Remka says is home to the highest rates of child abuse in the state, and a homeless shelter.
“We are a poverty district and we have a huge number of children we have to transport, and these foster care cases are putting a huge need on us,” Chan-Remka said.
According to Chan-Remka, the district has 34 foster youth who need to be transported across district lines, and would prefer to see the state Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), which oversees foster care, pay.
Luckily Chan-Remka has a powerful employee in school social worker Roger Picard, who moonlights as a state senator. Rhode Island has a part-time legislature. After discussing her concerns with Picard, he quickly authored the foster youth transportation bill introduced on February 15.
Put in the national context, Picard’s bill is an important step in tying up one of the loose ends in the federal law that has proved a nagging stumbling block for states across the country.
Regardless of how instructive this bill could be in other jurisdictions, it comes at a moment when Rhode Island is grappling with an $87 million budget deficit. Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) has proposed a $5 million cut to the state’s child welfare system in this year’s budget.
Foster Forward CEO Lisa Guillette, whose advocacy group represents roughly 1,000 Rhode Island foster parents, said that the looming cuts to DCYF will make it very hard for the service providers and foster parents who have often given foster kids rides to far-off schools to get behind Picard’s bill.
“Philosophically, all the providers believe educational stability is the right thing for kids,” Guillette said. But “putting the burden on the child welfare agency will only exacerbate the woes we are feeling.”
In a telling sign, the Rhode Island Coalition for Children and Families, which represents the state’s foster care providers, wasn’t ready to support Picard’s bill.
“The coalition hasn’t yet taken a position on the bill,” said Tanja Kubas-Meyer, the association’s executive director, in an email.
While DCYF didn’t make any officials available in time for this story, the agency’s chief of staff, Patricia Hessler, said in an earlier interview with The Chronicle of Social Change that transportation is the “biggest struggle” in implementing ESSA’s foster care mandates.
“Remember, we are only talking about a tiny little state. This shouldn’t be a huge barrier, but it is,” Hessler said. “DCYF doesn’t operate buses, so we have social workers, group home staff and foster parents driving kids twice a day. It’s a huge resource drain.”
Meg Geoghegen, a communications official with the state Department of Education, said that her agency was “reviewing the legislation” in an email, but would not provide further comment.
For his part, Picard wants to move forward with the bill and hear input, including the idea of having the state reserve funds to pay for foster students’ school transportation.
“I am open to discussions regarding this in regards to how it can be funded,” he said. “I am open to work with any ideas. I am very determined to try and get this remedied ASAP.”