As “back to school” sales hit stores across the country, many youth in foster care are facing the anxiety and uncertainty of starting “yet another” new school — a reality many will face throughout the school year as they move from one new foster, kinship, or group home to another.
For over a decade, the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education, a project of the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, Education Law Center, and Juvenile Law Center, has advocated for changes to policy and practice at the federal, state, and local level, to improve educational outcomes for students in foster care. One of the most exciting recent developments in the field came in December 2015, when Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”), which includes provisions about child welfare and education agencies’ responsibility to ensure and prioritize school stability for all children and youth in foster care.
ESSA gave states a deadline of December 10, 2016, to develop protocols and plans to implement this new law, including developing and effectuating local transportation plans. Reaching that deadline on time would have allowed the hundreds of thousands of youth in foster care across the country to stay in the same school last year, and face “back to school” this year with less worry. The Chronicle recently queried education officials in 16 states and the District of Columbia to determine “whether or not they were living up to ESSA’s foster care mandates.” According to the recent article, States All Over the Map on Ensuring Educational Stability for Foster Youth, only “a handful of states have complied, [but] others have failed or struggle to do so.”
Through our own analysis of implementation around the country – including states that have yet to submit state plans – we agree that significant work is needed to ensure compliance. However, there is also much to be learned from the progress that has been made in many state and local jurisdictions. There are also clear steps that other states can take to implement the foster care provisions of ESSA fully.
What steps can states take to “live up to ESSA’s foster care mandates?”
First, states should detail specifically how they will provide the assurances of school stability that ESSA requires as part of their state plans. For example, Tennessee’s state plan details exactly how the state is ensuring compliance through joint guidance, ongoing collaboration with the state child welfare agency, as well as new policies and protocols at the local level.
Approximately thirty states will be submitting plans to the U.S. Department of Education in September. Plans should be guided by the comprehensive joint guidance issued by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services in 2016.
Second, state departments of education and child welfare must work together to issue comprehensive joint guidance to local agencies, provide training and technical assistance to their respective local counterparts, and rigorously monitor and hold local agencies accountable. Among other things, states must establish a mechanism for resolving disputes over the cost of transportation, and other issues that may arise between local child welfare and education agencies.
Third, states should look to their peers around the country who are making progress on school stability for youth in foster care. For instance, some states, such as New Mexico and Nevada, have adopted legislation to ensure school stability and increase support services for children in foster care. In other jurisdictions, state agencies have released instructive guidance documents including joint guidance from state child welfare and education agencies; implementation checklists; flowcharts of the education stability process, including best interest decision-making; sample transportation procedures and MOUs, and best interest determination forms. Some states, such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, maintain these documents on websites dedicated specifically to education support for youth in foster care.
Many states, including Colorado, have provided templates for local child welfare agencies and have held regional meetings to facilitate collaboration between local education and child welfare agencies. Around the country, many local school districts and child welfare agencies have come together to enter into agreements addressing crucial aspects of school stability such as a transportation and documenting the best interest decisions.
The Legal Center for Foster Care and Education stands ready to assist states and local jurisdictions to implement the foster care provisions of ESSA and give youth in care access to the quality, stable education needed to equip them to become successful adults. We track progress around the country, share examples of tools and resources, and connect similarly situated jurisdictions. We have a variety of resources available, including an Implementation Toolkit that contains templates and adaptable forms, and we have provided technical assistance across the country.
We are encouraged that many states and counties want to and can make important progress on school stability for foster youth but it must be viewed as a priority now for all states. We urge education and child welfare advocates both in and outside the systems to press forward on implementation with their state and local education and child welfare agencies so that all children in foster care can benefit from these important school stability protections this school year.
Kathleen McNaught is with the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. Maura McInerney is with the Education Law Center-PA, and Kate Burdick is with Juvenile Law Center. All are part of the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education.