Los Angeles Hopes to Avoid Moving Backward on Education for Foster Students

Los Angeles Unified School District is hoping that Measure EE — a $500 million parcel tax on the ballot for next Tuesday — will help support students in the nation’s second largest school district, including more than 3,600 foster children.

Big changes may be ahead for the nearly 3,600 foster youth currently enrolled in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Last week, the district announced that it will start producing regular data reports on how students in foster care are faring in school and how often they are changing schools — a key issue for foster youth who are frequently forced to change placements far from home.

It’s part of an effort to make sure Los Angeles foster youth are reaping the benefits of California’s landmark education funding reform law, the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). Meant to steer additional resources to certain at-risk groups of students, advocates for foster youth say their kids aren’t getting enough out of the deal. That concern is magnified as the LAUSD faces potential cost-cutting efforts designed to address the district’s rocky financial health.

“If the foster youth program in the district is dismantled or diluted, we will be going backward,” said Karla Pleitéz Howell, director of educational equity at the Advancement Project California.

A teachers’ strike earlier this year drew attention to the district’s budget deficits caused by ballooning pension obligations. Even if a $500 million ballot measure next week passes, advocates are still worried that foster youth in the district could be shortchanged by restructuring plans being considered by LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner.

Last month, the national news site Chalkbeat published a leaked version of recommendations prepared by consultants hired by LAUSD to “re-imagine” its school system for the start of the next school year. The documents lay out a plan to reorganize the district’s 1,300 schools into a set of 32 networks, empowering school principals and dramatically reducing the role of the central office.

Information remains scarce about what exactly those plans entail and how they might be rolled out, but with a district budget set to be released over the next couple weeks, many Los Angeles advocates for foster youth are alarmed.

Last month, many of them showed up at a meeting of LAUSD’s board to voice concerns about a potential plan to raise caseloads for counselors in the Foster Youth Achievement Program and have them work with a wider group that could include homeless students, youth exiting the juvenile justice system and other at-risk groups.

“The idea that one counselor can be a specialist with all those groups is really concerning and takes us a couple steps backward from how far we’ve come in creating special counselors who actually understand the needs of these kids,” said Jill Rowland, education program director for Alliance for Children’s Rights, an organization that advocates for foster youth.

According to conversations with advocates and staff, the district may be hoping to keep counselors from having to travel between up to 10 schools to visit foster students. So far, LAUSD has not provided specifics about what will be earmarked for foster youth in next year’s budget, which is required to be finalized by July 1.

“Services provided through our Foster Youth Achievement Program will continue in 2019 with dedicated funding and no decreases in the number of staff serving students,” according to a statement from LAUSD.

Over the past five years, the nation’s second largest school district has made big investments in programs for foster youth thanks to LCFF, a state initiative started under Gov. Jerry Brown (D) in 2013. The program calls for school districts to receive an extra allotment of funding for unduplicated counts of three categories of students: low income, English language learners and foster youth.

In the first four years of the formula, LAUSD used some of the $1.2 billion windfall to create the Foster Youth Achievement Program, which matches a counselor to each foster child enrolled in the district’s middle and high schools. The program started with three counselors for all the foster students in the district but it now numbers about 100 counselors. They work with the unique issues facing foster youth, including helping students deal with frequent school changes, track school credits and prepare for college. According to LAUSD staff, foster youth counselors carry a caseload of either about 60 high school students or 100 middle-school students.

The district also employs 12 social workers in its Group Home Scholars program, who work with students living in congregate care settings.

At the board meeting last week, LAUSD school board member Kelly Gonez introduced a resolution that calls on the district to do more to support foster youth under LCFF. Approved by the board, the measure calls on the district to provide data on academic outcomes, social-emotional indicators and mobility trends of all foster students in the district every year. For the first time, LAUSD will measure more specific indicators for foster youth like transportation, school stability and how many foster youth are able to remain in their school of origin, in the community where they grew up.

“School mobility has a huge impact on our foster youth,” Gonez said. “Having better data on that will allow us to better tailor our services to the youth who most need it and will also allow us to have accountability in the district around how well we’re working with child welfare to ensure school stability for our foster youth.”

Advocates say that supports and services for foster youth have helped raise graduation rates by 10 percent under LCFF, including 4.8 percent in the last year alone. But foster youth still lag behind their peers in the district, including other at-risk groups like low-income students and English language learners. According to last week’s resolution, the 2017-18 four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate for foster youth in LAUSD is 52.3 percent, well below the district’s four-year cohort graduation rate of 76.6 percent for all students.

A Los Angeles County Civil Grand Jury report released last year looking at the implementation of LCFF found other worrying issues for Los Angeles foster youth. According to state data, about one quarter of foster youth are chronically absent at LAUSD, more than double the 11.7 percent rate for all students in the district. Foster students at LAUSD are also suspended from school at a rate 4.6 times that of the overall student population. The report argues that “the method for distributing LCFF funds statewide underrepresents the needs of foster youth students and does not directly fund programs and services required to meet the needs of students in foster care.”

According to advocates, part of the issue is that LCFF is calculated using unduplicated counts, meaning that foster youth may be swept up into tallies of low-income students. There is no specific funding allocated to school districts based on their foster youth student numbers. They must create specific plans about how they are planning to spend LCFF money, but many school districts in the county don’t mention how they will address supports or services for foster youth.

Rowland of the Alliance estimates that only about 15 of LA County’s nearly 80 school districts mention foster youth in their LCFF plans at all. One reason is that foster youth have historically been a difficult population to engage at the local level because they often don’t have the same engaged community of parents coming to speak up for them at key school district meetings, Rowland said.

Howell of the Advancement Project said more support for foster youth is often a difficult task for resource-strapped schools.

“The challenge for LA County and the challenge for the state is that we are asking principals and teachers to do a lot, and the money isn’t there,” Howell said. “Really we need more funding — about $25 billion to really lean into the challenge of educational equity through LCFF. This isn’t just a one-time budget request; it’s an ongoing shared responsibility at the local and state levels.”

Whether LAUSD can boost its revenue is currently a question for city residents. After LA teachers settled a seven-day strike in January, LAUSD said it would need to find more money to fund guarantees for teacher pay and smaller class sizes while it tackled budget projections that showed potential insolvency within three years. Next Tuesday, voters will decide whether to approve Measure EE, a new 16 cent-per-square-foot parcel tax to raise $500 million a year for schools. Advocates are hoping that amidst potential turmoil, foster youth and their unique educational needs don’t get lost in the mix.

“Being involved with the child welfare system means students are coming to school with a lot of added trauma and to be able serve all of the needs of that child — socio-emotional as well as mental health and academic needs, we really do need better resources so that we can provide more supports for our foster youth,” said LAUSD board member Gonez.

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