It is hard being a foster parent. But I don’t have to tell you that. Transportation is among a long list of challenges that foster parents face. Whether getting your child to important visits with his or her biological parents, or taking that child to a school in a neighboring school district, to foster is often to drive. But when it comes to that second scenario — the ride to school — the responsibility is not yours alone. Federal law says that schools and foster care systems have to come up with plans and pay for transportation to and from the school that is the best fit for your foster child. Depending on what state you live in and the school district where your child attends school, your foster son or daughter may or may not be denied their legal rights. My goal here is to equip you with the knowledge you need to ensure your foster child’s educational stability. To do this, I will give you a background on the law so that you can walk straight up to your social worker or school administrator and demand that your child has a ride to school, or that you are reimbursed for doing it.
The Importance of Educational Stability
There are roughly 270,000 school-aged foster youth scattered in schools across the country. In my home state of California, 58 percent of foster youth will graduate high school compared to 84 percent of students overall. Frequent school moves are a key factor. More than one-third of all foster youth will experience five or more school moves by the time they turn 18. Each move can cost four to six months of academic progress. This has been long known, and advocates, policymakers and bureaucrats across both child welfare and education have been working for decades to fix the problem. But even after federal laws ordering both the child welfare and education systems to ensure education stability for foster youth the problem persists.
The Feds to the Rescue
In 2008, Congress passed the landmark Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. Fostering Connections included a number of provisions regarding education, including a mandate requiring state child welfare agencies to keep foster youth at the school they were attending at the time of their removal, unless it was in their best interest to be in another school. There were some obvious problems with the rule. First, school districts are not beholden to federal child welfare policy. Second, child welfare systems do not own fleets of school buses to get foster youth to their schools of origin. As early as 2011, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and a clutch of Senate colleagues were working on a fix. This came as an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that would create mirror mandates to Fostering Connections in the education system. Franken called it the Fostering Success in Education Act. When the rewrite of ESEA finally happened in 2015, Franken and co were there, pushing for and winning the foster care provisions included in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). But, the foster care transportation mandate had an Achilles heel. Instead of specifying how local education agencies and their counterparts in child welfare should pay for transporting foster kids to their schools of origin, ESSA simply instructs school districts to come up with plans to share the cost. This sets up a negotiation process between public agencies about money, never an expedient affair. The result: uneven implementation across the states.
States Struggle and Strive
In August, I wrote a story for The Chronicle of Social Change. I reached out to 16 states and the District of Columbia to find out if they were complying with ESSA’s foster care mandates. I chose these jurisdictions because they had submitted comprehensive ESSA implementation plans to the federal Department of Education in April. In addition, I had already covered California’s failure to live up to the foster care transportation mandates. Of the 18 total jurisdictions, three — California, Colorado and Illinois — either agreed that they had not fully complied or submitted a response that clearly indicated they hadn’t. Responses from another eight jurisdictions — North Dakota, Connecticut, Louisiana, New Jersey, Massachusetts, New Mexico, D.C. and Arizona — were insufficient to determine if they were complying fully, partially or not at all. The bright side is that seven states — Oregon, Nevada, Delaware, Michigan, Maine, Tennessee and Vermont — said that they had complied with the law’s December 2016 deadline instructing “local educational agencies” to “develop and implement clear written procedures governing how transportation to maintain children in foster care in their school of origin when in their best interest will be provided, arranged and funded.” All seven also affirmed that they are now transporting foster youth per the ESSA mandate.
What You Can Do
If you live in Oregon, Nevada, Delaware, Michigan, Maine, Tennessee or Vermont, you are lucky and are likely benefitting from school support in getting your child to their “school of origin.” But, if you don’t live in one of those states the situation is not as clear. Now you know the law. It is laudable that you would drive your foster youth many miles to school, but the law says you should be reimbursed for doing so. And if you cannot give your child a ride, then the school district and the child welfare agency have to figure it out. If you make this case and your social worker or school official doesn’t have a plan to accommodate transporting your foster child to his or her school of origin, please tell me about it. Making sure that foster youth are afforded educational stability will be a team effort, and sharing your stories will make it all go faster.
Daniel Heimpel is the founder and executive director of Fostering Media Connections (FMC). FMC is the proud publisher of Fostering Families Today, Adoption Today and The Chronicle of Social Change. He can be reached at [email protected].