When you are caring for school-aged children in foster care, there are any number of logistics a foster parent might find themselves involved with. One of those is school stability — enabling a child to remain in his or her school of origin, which is their right under the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act.
For some foster youth, their temporary home will be in the same school district. And others might not have the best school experience, and a change of scenery could be a silver lining in an otherwise traumatic experience. But for those children who wish to stay at their school, the effort to do so can be one of the most important efforts at ensuring stability in their tumultuous lives.
The Fostering Connections Act instructed child welfare agencies to make sure that kids were able to attend their school of origin, but it missed a key detail — school districts control the transportation of students, in particular the busing of kids. And the law put no onus on them to share the responsibility of educational stability.
In 2015, Congress closed that loophole — mostly. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) instructed child welfare agencies and local education agencies to establish a plan for transporting foster youth to their school of origin. Here are the rules in a nutshell.
- School districts must develop “clear written procedures” about transportation to “maintain children in foster care in their school of origin.”
- In the event that this costs extra money, a local education agency will provide transportation if any of the following three conditions is true:
- The local child welfare agency agrees to reimburse the local educational agency for the cost of such transportation.
- The local educational agency agrees to pay for the cost of such transportation.
- The local educational agency and the local child welfare agency agree to share the cost of such transportation.
- Each state, by 2016, was supposed to verify that its school districts and child welfare agencies have plans in place, essentially confirming compliance.
The potential loophole there, of course, is that there is no solution if neither the schools nor the social services agency is willing to pay. But that is a government problem — for foster parents, they should know that federal law requires these entities to support them in transporting foster youth back to their home school district if that’s what they want.
It is somewhat difficult to figure out to what extent states are living up to the expectations on school transportation. In 2018, our sister publication, The Chronicle of Social Change, had identified at least 10 states where compliance with the rules was an ongoing challenge. But to be fair, it was also unclear if states that professed compliance could actually verify that all over the state, foster youth were being transported seamlessly.
Some states have made clear progress in getting serious about educational stability. Colorado last year became the first state to legislate on the ESSA school transport requirements.
Under the Improving Educational Stability for Foster Youth Act, each school district must establish a child welfare liaison who works with the county foster care agency to “ensure that any necessary transportation and services are provided for the student in out-of-home placement to remain in the student’s school of origin.”
The legislature also kicked in $3 million a year to help local areas make the transportation plans work.
“Given the instability that foster youth endure in their personal lives, the least we can do is try to ensure foster youth have a reliable life at school,” said State Sen. Dominick Moreno (D), one of three co-sponsors of the bill, in 2018. “I believe this bill will result in better outcomes and improved graduation rates for foster youth.”
In Los Angeles, where dispatching buses to far-away corners would be a real challenge with the city’s infamous traffic, the county’s education department forged a partnership with the rideshare company HopSkipDrive to facilitate pickups and drop-offs for foster youths.
The company specializes in family to school transportation services. Through this partnership, the company transports between 500 and 600 kids per day, according to Qiana Patterson, the company’s director of public-private partnerships.
Rhode Island has bills in both of its legislative chambers that would set a fixed policy on transporting foster youth. Under those bills, which did not pass this session, the school district where the foster youth wanted to remain would cover the “original cost” of transportation. It would then be reimbursed by the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families.
That agency would also reimburse foster parents and relative caregivers on a mileage basis if it was better for them to drive the child.
Foster parents already have the heavy task of providing some semblance of home stability to a child who has been taken from their family. Ensuring that school-age foster youth can stay with their friends and favorite teachers can be a logistical difficulty, but one worth the effort for keeping some consistency in a child’s life.
The Fostering Connections Act and Every Student Succeeds Act instructed states to ensure that foster parents have help in making sure this is possible. If foster parents do not feel that their local schools and social workers are helping them arrange for transportation, they should know that they have a right to that assistance under federal law. The problem might be solved on a local level simply by making school officials or foster care workers aware that a parent knows about the requirements, and insist on help making a transportation plan.
If that doesn’t work, they should discuss the issue with their local foster parent association, and if the state has a child welfare ombudsman or independent monitoring body, they should notify that office.
John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.