Foster Youth Services Backers Make Case to Calif. Senate

During a California State Senate Budget Hearing late last month, advocacy groups, representatives from county offices of education, and foster children from across the state testified to express concern for the fate of a 32-year-old state program designed to help coordinate educational services for foster youth.

“This program has a demonstrated track record with providing foster youth with the educational supports that they need to succeed in school,” said Maya Cooper, an attorney at the National Center for Youth Law during the late Feb. hearing.

Cooper and scores of foster youth advocates throughout the state are fighting the elimination of the state’s long-standing and successful Foster Youth Services program in Gov. Brown’s proposed “Local Control Funding Formula.”

Foster Youth Services is a $15 million a year program that was launched in 1981 to address the specific educational needs of foster children. The program places foster youth advocates in county offices of education. These advocates work with foster youth, as well as staff from schools and child welfare and community services agencies to provide support for this vulnerable population.

Under the proposed budget, 47 of 62 categorical education programs, including Foster Youth Services, would be eliminated. School districts, as well as county offices of education, would receive increased funding under the Gov.’s plan. In addition, the formula would give school districts greater flexibility in how they spend state dollars, by providing a base funding amount per pupil and a supplemental amount for English learning, low-income, or foster care students.

Despite the proposal’s language in support of services for foster care youth, its implementation would actually eliminate funding for Foster Youth Services, by folding the program’s funding into general funds administered to California’s 58 County Offices of Education.

Catherine Giacalone, the manager of youth development services at the Contra Costa County Department of Education recently signed a widely circulated letter of protest with more than 50 organizations, including numerous County Offices of Education. Like Cooper, Giacalone expressed doubt that Foster Youth Services, and the needs of foster youth, will be prioritized under Brown’s proposal.

“This program has been a national model that other states look to replicate,” she emphasized. “I know that [money] is going to go to local control, but when it goes to local control, school districts are going to be very pressured to make sure that they’re meeting the API performance standards, that their students are passing…Foster youth will not be a priority.”

By eliminating this program, advocates contend that thousands of foster children will no longer receive the educational support they need, and point to the unique challenges that foster youth face.

According to a recent article on EdSource.org, the majority of foster youth already struggle to access educational support services, and perform well in school. In fact, as compared to their peers:

  • 75 percent of foster youth perform below grade level
  • 83 percent are held back by the third grade
  • 50 percent stay in school long enough to obtain a high school diploma/GED)
  • Less than 3 percent attend a four-year college

These statistics demonstrate a higher need for services, support, and programs for youth in foster care. But Ben O’Meara, a social work specialist with foster youth services at the Mount Diablo Unified School District, says that under the funding formula, services and supports for foster youth will inevitably be watered down.

“There is an attractiveness to the idea of local control,” O’Meara acknowledged. “The problem is that with foster youth, the issues are broader, and the communities aren’t that well informed about the challenges that foster youth face. In that sense, we feel like the foster youth population is unique, and should be better protected by keeping these funds in place to continue the programs that have been created over the years.”

Erica Hellerstein is a student at University of California-Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism

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