Quality education is vital to every child’s well being, and is especially crucial for vulnerable youth. Through positive learning experiences, children in or adopted from foster care can find a sense of security and belonging that lights a path to adult success. Yet, students in foster care are more likely to drop out, repeat a grade, and struggle in school.1 Past abuse and neglect play a role in these outcomes, but so does excessive mobility in care.
Children in care change living placements about once or twice a year. Too often, this also means changing schools. At each new school, the youth is the new kid again, may lack a stable support system, may have trouble getting school records and credits transferred, and may therefore need to repeat classes or even grades. With each move, students on average lose four to six months of academic growth.2 It is easy to see how foster youth can fall behind in school.
Students in care who rarely or never change schools are far more likely to graduate from high school.3 Children in care who experience school stability also have a better chance of more quickly achieving permanency with birth or adoptive families.4
Laws That Can Be Tools to Promote Greater School Stability
Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act
The Fostering Connections Act (P.L. 110-351) is a comprehensive law aimed at improving life for youth in care and promoting permanent family connections. Among other important provisions, the Act requires child welfare agencies to create “a plan for ensuring the educational stability of the child while in foster care.” Specifically, workers must document that the child’s placement takes into account both the appropriateness of the current school and the proximity to the school in which the child was enrolled at the time of placement, and that they have done one of the following:
Fostering Connections also permits child welfare agencies to use Title IV-E funds for reasonable transportation costs to help keep a child in her current school after moving. The costs are allowed as “foster care maintenance payments.”
McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act
Under McKinney-Vento (P. L. 100-77) states must keep each “homeless” youth at the youth’s “school of origin” (the last school he attended before being homeless or the last school in which he was enrolled) unless a school change is in the youth’s best interest. The local education agency must keep homeless youth in the school of origin when possible unless a parent or guardian objects.
The local education agency must transport homeless youth to and from the school of origin if needed. Also, like Fostering Connections, McKinney-Vento requires that, when a child changes schools, the old school transfer records and the new school enroll her at once.
One category of homeless children—youth “awaiting foster care placement”— is not defined, so states must supply their own definition. Delaware defines youth “awaiting…placement” as all youth in care. Other states, as well as some school districts, have negotiated agreements that qualify only some children in care for McKinney-Vento benefits.
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
Many youth in care have disabilities that entitle them to special education services outlined in the IDEA (P. L. 108-446). While the IDEA does not specifically address school mobility, provisions do promote the continuity of special education services. Under the IDEA:
The IDEA also requires school districts to identify and evaluate certain children, including state wards and “highly mobile” children, to make sure that they receive appropriate education services.
Though federal laws promote educational stability for foster children, we must do more to support every child in care. Laws and policies should:
Changes may come at the local, state, or federal level. For example, a recently introduced U.S. Senate bill—the Fostering Success in Education Act—would require states to make sure child welfare and education agencies work together to keep foster youth in their school of origin when it is in their best interests, and to facilitate immediate enrollment when a child changes schools. It also encourages child welfare and local education agencies to work together to help transport the child to her old school, with child welfare covering most transportation costs.
Determining Which School Serves the Child’s Best Interest
Billy, 13, lives in a pre-adoptive home. Suddenly his foster father gets ill, and the adoption falls through. Billy must move to a new family in a new school district.
It is March. If Billy changes schools now, he will have to take subjects that he did not study at his old school. Billy is also close to current teachers and friends and wants to stay at the school. Billy’s new foster parents, however, are active with the local PTA and want him at their school. Both parents also work, so they have no time to drive Billy back and forth to his old school.
Under Fostering Connections (and McKinney-Vento in some jurisdictions) Billy can stay at his current school if it is in his best interest. The determination, however, is not that simple:
If Billy transfers mid-year, he might lose credit for school work and have to repeat a grade. His wish to remain where he is, his friends, and his bond with teachers are also compelling reasons to stay. While Billy gets to know his new family, it would be easier if he did not have to adjust to a new school.
On the other hand, since Billy’s new parents are already involved in the school, they could help him transition to the new setting. If the placement is meant to be permanent, there are benefits to having Billy switch schools sooner rather than later.
If the agencies decide Billy should stay in his original school, they must do so without burdening the new family. For instance, Billy could ride with a teacher from his old school who lives near his new home, or the school districts could share transportation costs.
The Legal Center for Foster Care and Education keeps policy makers, child advocates, and other professionals informed about laws and policies that promote educational success for youth in care. By learning about these rules and programs, we can all champion better outcomes for youth. A good education can open doors to a better life, and youth in and adopted from care deserve a fair chance to acquire the tools they need to realize a brighter tomorrow.
2 Dr. Joy Rogers, Loyola University Department of Education, Education Report of Rule 706 Expert Panel presented in B.H. v. Johnson, 715 F. Supp. 1387 (N.D. Ill. 1989), 1991.
3 Pecora, P., Williams, J., Kessler, R.C., Downs, A.C., O’Brien, K., Hiripi, E., & Morello, S. (2003). Assessing the Effects of Foster Care: Early Results from the Casey National Alumni Study. Seattle, WA: Casey Family Programs. [www.casey.org/Resources/Publications/AssessingEffectsOfFosterCare.htm]
5 Legal Center for Foster Care and Education and the National Center for Homeless Education, Best Practices in Homeless Education: School Selection for Students in Out-of-Home Care (Fall 2009). [www.serve.org/nche/downloads/briefs/school_sel_in_care.pdf]
North American Council on Adoptable Children (NACAC)
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