Can Franken’s Bill Close Federal Gaps on School Stability for Foster Youths?

The Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, signed into law by George W. Bush in 2008, updated federal child welfare law in several ways. Among those was a mandate for local child welfare agencies to give children placed into foster care the opportunity to remain in their school of origin.

But school systems, state and otherwise, have their own policies about where students can go, and they are also the entity responsible for transporting students to and fro. They are their own bureaucracies with their own rules, and wholly unaffected by federal child welfare reform.

Enter Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and his Education Stability of Foster Youth Act. Introduced at the end of last week, the bill aims to clean that up by requiring state and local education agencies to work with child welfare systems.

If it passes, it better work. Because Franken’s bill also removes foster youths from one of the only federal accounts that can currently be used to help them with school stability.

Franken, a vocal member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) has for years sought to bookend Fostering Connections with a federal update that would impact schools. The straightest path to that is an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA).

Franken successfully tacked on amendments to two recent committee markups of ESEA, which is overdue for a rewrite following the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. But despite the fact that both parties have come to dislike No Child Left Behind, reform of ESEA seems locked in partisan wrangling over the extent of federal control on schools.

With this bill, Franken hopes to extricate a tiny piece of policy shift from the larger ESEA debate. Franken’s bill proposes to shore up school stability with a balance of state-level and local coordination.

Each state agency would be required to appoint one person to coordinate school stability. And presumably in hopes of making that a real job and not something tacked onto an already burdened employee, that coordinator cannot be the state’s McKinney Vento Act coordinator (who manages education assistance for homeless youth).

It will fall to this coordinator to ensure that the education and child welfare agencies are keeping foster youth in school and – of equal importance – ensuring the ones who are moved get into new schools immediately.

Meanwhile, local school districts must create “clear written procedures” for maintaining school stability. They will have one year to do so after the passage of the law, should that happen.

But the bill may stop short of resolving the biggest bureaucratic snag related to foster youth and schools of origin: transportation. Franken only sort of puts the school districts somewhat on the hook for this in the bill.

The relevant section states that if there are extra costs to transport foster kids to their school,  “the local education agency will provide transportation to the school of origin if…”

And it’s a big if.

The schools must transport the youth if any of the following is true: the child welfare agency will pay for it; the schools will pay for it; or the two agencies will share the cost in some way.

That pretty much sums up all the ways that transportation could be paid for. But it weirdly seems to leave some wiggle room for schools in the event that nobody steps up to pay. If neither entity will pay, the bill is silent on what happens.

In previous discussions of Franken’s idea, when it was an amendment, the only real reservation on the part of HELP Committee members was transportation cost, particularly in rural areas. It’s one thing to bus a kid in one Chicago neighborhood to another; driving him or her to a different county in Alaska could prove absurdly onerous and expensive.

So if this bill were to pass, it would fall to local school districts and either the state or county child welfare agency to get along on cost sharing.

Meanwhile, the final clause of Franken’s bill rewrites the definition of “homeless child” in the McKinney-Vento Act to exclude children “awaiting foster care placement.” McKinney-Vento funds are designated to assist in the school stability of homeless children, but some child welfare agencies tap into it to address transportation costs for foster youths.

Franken has amassed a strong bipartisan co-sponsorship for the act:

  • Patty Murray (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the minority on HELP
  • Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Caucus on Foster Youth
  • Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee

The big question: will HELP Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) choose to help or hinder Franken’s cause?

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Senior Editor John Kelly

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