L.A.’s Failure to Implement Foster Care Mandates Could Cost California $1.8 Billion in Federal Education Funds

Today, Los Angeles County’s Board of Supervisors will consider a motion aimed at speeding the county’s implementation of federal mandates on the educational stability of its 20,000 school-aged foster youth.

While the motion claims that the county’s 81 school districts are not out of compliance with a 2015 federal law mandating that foster kids be transported to their “school of origin,” assertions from the Los Angeles County Office of Education make clear that those districts ­– and thus the state of California – are. Beyond leaving students in foster care in the lurch, the breach could cost the state $1.8 billion in federal funds reserved for its poorest children.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by President Obama in 2015, made implementation of mandates focused on the educational stability of foster youth a condition of a state’s Title I grant award.

“In terms of a penalty, you can have Title I funds withheld for failure to comply,” said Maura McInerney, a senior staff attorney with the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center.

While some sources said it was unlikely that the federal Department of Education would mete out such a penalty, Washington D.C. is home to a new president who has vowed to cut funds to jurisdictions with policies he does not agree with. California’s stance on so-called “sanctuary cities” makes it an obvious target.

Title I is the largest grant program at the Department of Education. It doles out $14.9 billion to school districts across the country to supplement spending on the poorest children. California gets almost 12 percent of that money, more than any other state, according to a May report by the Congressional Research Service. A June report, conducted by U.S. News and World Report, showed that the state’s largest school district, Los Angeles Unified, drew down almost $345 million in Title I money during the current fiscal year.

Federal Action for Students in Foster Care

Every Student Succeeds was the first major overhaul of federal education policy since 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act. A key component for students in foster care was a handful of mandates aimed at promoting the their educational stability.

The most thorny of these was the requirement that state and local educational agencies receiving federal education funds work with the state and local foster care systems to come up with a plan to transport foster children to their so-called school of origin. The idea was that if a child is removed from the care of his or her biological parents, the system has an obligation to try its best to keep that child in his or her school. The statute is clear about the deadline for state and local education and child welfare systems to get this done.

“By not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of the Every Student Succeeds Act, develop and implement clear written procedures governing how transportation to maintain children in foster care in their school of origin when in their best interest will be provided, arranged, and funded for the duration of the time in foster care.”

Every Student Succeeds became law on Dec. 10, 2015, meaning that the deadline for state and local education agencies to comply was Dec. 10, 2016. If not clear enough, guidance and other correspondence issued by the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services highlights this deadline at least a dozen times.

“The Title I educational stability provisions take effect on December 10, 2016,” the agencies wrote in guidance issued in June 2016. “As such, we encourage SEAs [State Educational Agencies] and LEAs [Local Education Agencies] to begin planning for the implementation of these provisions, in collaboration with child welfare agencies, as soon as possible.”

California and Los Angeles Fail to Comply

While the federal government was busy reminding state and local agencies about their responsibility to satisfy the educational stability requirements of Every Student Succeeds, California and Los Angeles failed to get the message.

During a county meeting on Jan. 25, a representative from the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE) stated that her office and the county’s school districts had until September to implement the transportation requirements under the law. During the meeting, Rachelle Touzard said that the California Department of Education had sent a letter in December to the state’s 58 county offices of education calling the 2016-17 fiscal year a “transition year” for full implementation.

Helen Berberian, a deputy director at the county’s Department of Children of Family Services, who presented alongside Touzard at Jan. 25 meeting of the county’s Education Coordinating Council (ECC), said she learned of the September deadline just before the meeting.

“At the start of the 1/25/17 ECC meeting, both Dr. Touzard of LACOE and Stefanie Gluckman of the ECC informed me that the new submission deadline for the State Plan to the federal government was September 2017,” Berberian said in an email.

This is true, the federal government had extended the deadline for implementing certain portions of the federal law, but had not changed the deadline for the mandates regarding foster youth’s educational stability. Somehow, this conflation of deadlines was accepted by the county’s Board of Supervisors as fact, and was memorialized in today’s motion.

“The California Department of Education designated 2016 and 2017 as the ‘ESSA implementation planning period,’ establishing no expectation for ESSA to have been fully implemented by December 2016,” the motion reads.

But, on Jan. 18, 2017 – one week before the L.A. County meeting where Touzard claimed her agency had been granted the later September deadline – the California Department of Education sent a statewide letter noting the extension on other parts of the law, but stating that:

“The educational stability requirements (school of origin, immediate enrollment, records transfer, points of contact and transportation) took effect on December 10, 2016, and implementation is a condition on each state’s FY 2016 Title I grant award.

The CDE urges all LEAs that have not already done so to develop, document, and ensure consistent implementation of policies regarding these items.”

LACOE did not respond for requests asking for any documentation supporting the notion that the deadline had been extended. Rather, the office’s public information officer, Kostas Kalaitzidis, sent an email stating that “LACOE’s Foster Youth Service Division is assisting school districts throughout Los Angeles County to create and implement plans regarding foster youth services as outlined by state and federal requirements.”

The California Department of Education, which is the entity that would have communicated any change in the deadline to the county offices of education, said that it had never said or sent anything that suggested that deadline for implementation was in September.

“We have communicated with our County Office of Education partners that the Dec. 10 deadline exists, and we continue to work with our County Office of Education partners to ensure that collaboration is in place,” said Lisa Guillen, the department’s consultant for Foster Youth Services.

Stefanie Gluckman, the director of the county’s Education Coordinating Council, which was impaneled more than a decade ago to ensure the educational success of foster youth, said that her office would be working to get a plan in place, and welcomed the Board of Supervisors’ attention to this issue.

“The whole point of the ECC is to coordinate efforts, and everyone is openly working together on this so I am very excited,” Gluckman said. “We are hoping to have something real to report at the next quarterly meeting [of the ECC], an actual plan.”

Across the country, other state education agencies have been documenting the implementation of Every Student Succeeds’ foster youth mandates, according to the Education Law Center’s McInerney.

The problem for California’s Department of Education is that when it submits its comprehensive plan in September, the agency will be hard pressed to produce documentation that the state’s 1,000-plus school districts had implemented the foster care mandates by the December 2016 deadline. That is sure to be true for school districts throughout Los Angeles County.

If passed, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors’ motion would give various county agencies, including LACOE and the ECC, 60 days to report back “and quarterly thereafter on an implementation plan and timeline to fully comply with the provisions of the Federal Every Student Succeeds Act related to school stability for foster children.”

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Daniel Heimpel, Publisher, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Daniel Heimpel, Publisher, The Chronicle of Social Change 181 Articles
Daniel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at dheimpel@fosteringmediaconnections.org.