Despite a long history of supporting foster youth’s academic success, California failed to comply with a federal deadline requiring all states to submit plans on how to pay for those students’ transportation to school.
In 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, the first major overhaul of federal education policy in more than a decade. ESSA included a handful of provisions and mandates regarding the educational stability of students in foster care, who fare far worse in school than the majority of their classmates, in large part because of frequent school moves. One of those mandates ordered state educational agencies to come up with plans for how to pay for foster youth to ride school buses by Dec. 10, 2016.
But California, unlike a number of other states, asked for and was granted an extension until September. Instead of complying with federal law in December, California’s Department of Education sent County Offices of Education throughout the state a letter saying that the 2016-17 fiscal year was a “transition year” for full ESSA implementation.
“September seems outrageous,” said Maura McInerney, a senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, which is tracking ESSA implementation nationwide. “They are out of compliance with ESSA and that is a problem. This law was adopted in December of 2015, and these school stability requirements were clearly articulated, and the obligation to ensure enforcement rests with the state education agency.”
McInerney rattled off the names of at least a dozen states that have complied with the federal law. She also pointed out that Colorado, which has nowhere near the legislative history on foster care and education that California does, had managed to meet the deadline.
The revelation that California was out of compliance came last week during a well-attended meeting of Los Angeles County’s Education Coordinating Council, which has long brought parties from education and child welfare together to improve the educational achievement of students in foster care.
At the meeting, a representative from the Los Angeles County Office of Education blamed the state and county’s delay in implementation on the federal government, pointing out that the final regulations on ESSA implementation were not released until very close to the Dec. 10 deadline.
“When you rush a plan, it may not be as fruitful or as planned out,” said Rochelle Touzard, who works as a project director for foster youth services within LACOE.
But California history would suggest that the state has had years to figure this out.
As early as 1981, California acknowledged the unique educational needs of children in foster care when it launched the Foster Youth Services Program. The program provided educational liaisons to serve the state’s tens of thousands of school-aged foster youth.
In 2003, the legislature passed AB 490, which broke the mold on educational stability by ordering the timely transfer of school records, and allowing foster youth to stay in their school even after being removed into foster care or changing foster homes.
And in 2013, when the state enacted the so-called Local Control Funding Formula – which dramatically altered how education is financed – lawmakers provided special “concentration” grants specifically focused on students in foster care.
Martha Matthews, a directing attorney with the advocacy law firm Public Counsel, who attended the meeting, said that despite this history, Los Angeles County’s complexity could account for its officials’ inability to have a cogent plan on foster care transportation in place.
“They know they are supposed to prioritize educational stability, and they may be a little paralyzed by the scale of the problem,” Mathews said.
LACOE estimates that there at least 20,000 school-aged foster youth scattered across the county’s 81 school districts.ss
“I don’t think they are just making excuses,” Mathews said. “I think it is really complex. Being an advocate, I think they should have started sooner and worked harder to come up with a plan. That would have been optimal.”
Daniel Heimpel is a Lecturer at the Goldman School of Public Policy and the founder of Fostering Media Connections (FMC), a nonprofit journalism organization based in Los Angeles dedicated to solution-based news coverage of child welfare, juvenile justice, mental health and educational issues faced by vulnerable children.
This article was originally posted on Los Angeles Daily News.