For the first time since the law expired in 2007, both chambers of Congress have passed a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). That 2001 bill, the most recent overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, brought national standards and expectations to education but asserted too much federal authority.
There will be a conference to hammer out the differences between the House and Senate bills, and then it will fall to President Barack Obama to sign or veto an education rewrite led by the Republicans.
The conference process will decide the fate of two provisions in the Senate bill that pertain directly to youth in foster care:
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) has championed the inclusion of foster youth in an NCLB rewrite for years. Last month, he introduced a stand-alone bill on the matter, and then successfully connected it by amendment to the legislation passed this week.
With this bill, Franken proposes to shore up school stability for foster youth with a balance of state-level and local coordination. Each state agency would be required to appoint one person to coordinate school stability.
It will fall to this coordinator to ensure that the education and child welfare agencies are keeping foster youth in school and – of equal importance – ensuring the ones who are moved get into new schools immediately.
Meanwhile, local school districts must create “clear written procedures” for maintaining school stability. They will have one year to do so after the passage of the law, should that happen.
This would close the circle on a previous Congressional effort to ensure stability for students in foster care. The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2008, updated federal child welfare law in several ways. Among those was a mandate for local child welfare agencies to give children placed into foster care the opportunity to remain in their school of origin.
But school systems, state and otherwise, are not beholden to the decrees of Congress when it comes to child welfare. They are, however, tied to federal education law by substantial funding through Title I.
Franken’s provision does leave some grey area on the subject of transportation. It requires schools to provide transport to the school of origin, but only if extra costs to do so are accounted for by either the schools or the child welfare agency.
If the cost cannot be worked out, it appears that the schools are off the hook for transportation services.
Franken’s language also carries one slight limitation on school spending for foster youth: It rewrites the definition of “homeless child” in the McKinney-Vento Act to exclude children “awaiting foster care placement.”
McKinney-Vento funds are designated to assist in the school stability of homeless children, but some child welfare agencies tap into it to address transportation costs for foster youth.
For the first time, states will have to track the graduation rates of students who experience homelessness, foster care, or both. That is thanks to a provision proposed by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.).
Most people in both parties agree that NCLB overstepped the boundaries of rational federal involvement in schools. But it was the first law to mandate tracking of academic outcomes based on race, special needs, and English-learner status.
Booker’s provision means we may soon have vastly improved, state-by-state data about the nexus between foster care and education.
“Disaggregating foster student data will allow states and districts to measure the efficacy of policies and programs intended to close the foster youth achievement gap,” said Jesse Hahnel, director of FosterEd, in a statement following the Senate’s passage of the bill.