California Department of Ed Taps Foster Care Education Vet After Failing to Comply with Federal Law

In the wake of revelations that California’s Department of Education failed to comply with federal education law affecting foster youth, it has hired a new leader for its Foster Youth Services Coordinating Program.

CREDIT: National Center for Youth Law. Jackie Wong started her job at CDE on Monday.

Jacqueline Wong, who started at the department yesterday, is no stranger to the California Department of Education (CDE) program, which until recently had been considered one of the national leaders on ensuring the educational success of students in foster care. From 2006 to 2012 Wong oversaw the program, which places foster youth coordinators in school districts and county offices of education across the state. Those coordinators are responsible for tasks like speeding enrollment when children change schools, ensuring that educational records follow students and advocating on behalf of foster students so that they can excel in the classroom.

Until last week she served as the senior director of government affairs at the National Center for Youth Law (NCYL), an Oakland-based non-profit. Prior to her role with the center, Wong also served as a policy consultant for then California State Senate President Darrell Steinberg.

“Jackie is an amazing advocate and all we [at NCYL] really care about is kids,” said Jesse Hahnel, NCYL’s executive director. “I think she is going to do amazing things for foster youth in California at CDE. She is following her heart. And that program [Foster Youth Services] is near and dear to her. She is the right person to make it a national model.”

Wong’s appointment comes after a spate of news stories and editorials in this publication, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere that pointed to CDE’s failure to meet a federal deadline to ensure and pay for foster students’ transportation to school.

Wong’s predecessor at Foster Youth Services had misinformed some local school leaders about a December 2016 deadline for school districts to come into compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act’s foster care mandates. This, according to one foster youth services coordinator in San Diego, slowed implementation of the law, which impeded efforts to transport children to their so-called “schools of origin.”

The penalty for a state’s failure to comply with these mandates is a reduction in its Title I funding. Title I is the largest program administered by the federal Department of Education, accounting for $14.9 billion distributed to school districts across the country with substantial populations of low-income students. California is the largest recipient at $1.8 billion.

“The California Department of Education is fully committed to the academic success of each and every student and is aware of the unique needs of our foster youth,” said Bill Ainsworth, CDE’s communications director, in an email. “We are pleased that Jacqueline Wong is filling this position. Jacqueline has the experience, qualifications, dedication, leadership skills, and passion to help California’s foster youth succeed.”

Aisnworth did not point to any action the department has taken to speed compliance in the six months since the lapse was first revealed publicly. But given Wong’s strong track record running Foster Youth Services and as an advocate outside of the department, it can be assumed that her hiring is a step toward compliance with the federal law.

For its part, Los Angeles County, home to more foster students than any other jurisdiction in the state, developed a stopgap program to pay for their transportation to school in May.

Wong is stepping into her role with a strong sense of purpose.

“The decision to leave the National Center for Youth Law was difficult, but I believe that this is a critical time in the implementation of these landmark education reforms for students in foster care,” Wong said in an email. “California has been a national leader in the fight for educational equity and access for students in foster care for over 40 years and my hope is to continue this good work.”

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