Isn’t it Ironic, Don’t you Think?

By. Daniel Heimpel

As the federal government works toward eased flow of information between the foster care system and education, the state that led the charge now aims to dam up the spring. 

SACRAMENTO – As California stumbles into the oncoming fiscal year, a yawning deficit is forcing wrenching cuts. It is an environment wherein hard fought protections for the state’s most vulnerable are felled at a dizzying rate.

“What is sad is that somehow anything that might potentially have a cost is just being swiped away without any close analysis,” said Laura Faer, Public Counsel’s Education Rights Director.

Faer and an unrelenting group of advocates have been fighting proposed changes to California’s education code under Governor Brown’s 2011-12 budget.  These changes would save two hundred thousand dollars but the cost to the state would be far greater, hurting its status as a national leader in policy promoting the educational success of foster children. Not to mention the educational cost to foster youth who already bounce through an average of nine different schools from kindergarten to senior year. This all happening while Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Calif.) – who was California’s Assembly Speaker in 2010 – promotes federal legislation she introduced last month facilitating the exchange of information between schools and foster care agencies to support foster children’s education.

But, the irony of federal advancement on foster care and education is lost on California administrators too deep in the budget hacking woods to see the forest.

On June 12th, the Senate Budget Fiscal Review Committee held a budget hearing in Sacramento. Michael Cohen, Chief Deputy Director of the Brown Administration’s Department of Finance explained the rationale behind converting 18 state mandates on Local Educational Agencies and School Districts to a $200 million “block grant.” This would eliminate the cumbersome process wherein local level school authorities must file reimbursemnt claims to recoup costs on  mandates imposed by the state, Cohen said. “We moved to a block grant approach where you eliminate those mandates, which in retrospect were never needed or are no longer needed.”

But, two of the mandates that would be eliminated under Cohen and the Administration’s plan are essential for foster youth struggling to make it through the state’s faltering public school system.

The first deals with the need for all social workers to have access to foster children’s educational records. Over the years, public child welfare agencies in California have increasingly contracted with social workers employed by private Foster Family Agencies to handle day-to-day casework. This means that private social workers are often the person closest to the foster children. But until 2000 when then-Assemblymember George Runner introduced legislation to fix the problem, these social workers did not have direct access to the educational records that would help them make decisions in the best interest of the child.

“The direct link between foster families and social workers is often weak,” the analysis filed in the statehouse reads. “Therefore it can be cumbersome to obtain student records, transmit them to the agency who then transmits the foster family.”

Roberto Favela, Vice President of a large California Foster Family Agency, says that this information is critical to ensuring that school records follow the child. “His personal life is traumatized by a living change,” Favela says, “and now you have an educational change that doesn’t facilitate or accommodate his needs.”

This was one of many examples of California’s progressive policy on the education of foster youth, which in 2003 culminated in landmark legislation to ensure foster youth had at least a fairer shot at at an education. A key mandate embedded into the broader law (AB 490) compelled Local Education Agencies to transfer a foster child’s school records within “two business days” of being moved. The common sense idea of timely transfer of records has since been engrained in federal child welfare policy as well as proposed federal education reform.

Despite a report from the California State Controller in 2011 that this mandate costs nothing, it still ended up on the Brown Administration’s chopping block, leaving advocates like Faer incredulous.

But for Cohen and the Administration, block granting and the subsequent elimination of code sections — which were created through thoughtful consideration and deliberation — is a win-win. “The block grant offers an opportunity for everyone to win by saving the administrative effort and providing flexible funding within the broad parameters of the state’s requirements,” Cohen said in the June 12th budget hearing.

While in agreement with some aspects of Cohen’s argument, Senator Mark Leno lead the Budget Review Committee in a 10-5 vote modifying the Administration’s block grant scheme, setting the stage for a state-level drama with national implications.

In Washington D.C., the attitude towards the education of foster youth is markedly different.

On May 31st, the last day of National Foster Care Awareness Month, Representative Karen Bass (D-Calif.) introduced the A Plus + Act, alongside co-sponsors Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Rep. Tom Marino (R-Penn.) and Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.). A + would loosen federal rules on who can access educational records, easing foster care agencies’ ability to get their hands on important school information.

The irony is not lost on Danielle Mole, a Policy Advocate for the Alliance of Children and Family Services, who has been lobbying to save the imperiled educational mandates back in California.

“One of the authors of the A + Act is Karen Bass who not so long ago was an Assembly member here in California,” Mole says. “We have a major California leader moving forward on providing increased collaboration between agencies, while California is potentially putting up addition barriers.”

A + currently sits in the House Education and the Workforce Committee, where staffers are unclear of when it will move forward. But co-sponsor Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) is clear about wanting to see that happen.

“It’s a bipartisan and commonsense bill and it costs nothing,” Stark said in a written statement provided to The Chronicle.

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-Sc.), attended the May 31st press conference when the bill was announced. As a member the Education and the Workforce Committee, Wilson is in a position to move A + to the floor.

“As an adoptive father, Congressman Wilson understands the importance of this issue and plans to review legislation pertaining to it,” said Wilson Communications Director Caroline Delleney in a statement provided to The Chronicle.

So as Washington presses forward on the education of foster youth, Sacramento may be rolling back.

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John Kelly
About John Kelly 1135 Articles
John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.