Foster Youth Written into Elementary and Secondary Education Reform (ESEA) bill.
An initial overture this year to overhaul the Elementary and Secondary Education Act would require schools to work with child welfare systems to ensure educational stability for foster youths.
Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee (HELP) Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced the Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013. Lauded by supporters as an important step toward improving education, the 1,500 page bill would give states and districts more flexibility to implement their own accountability systems and interventions to improve schools.
One provision of the bill – the “Educational Stability of Children in Foster Care,” authored by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) – takes some important language from measures put forward in Franken’s 2011 Fostering Connections to Success in Education Amendment. The law placed obligations on school districts that complemented those placed on child welfare agencies under the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act.
“Children deserve access to a high-quality education and part of my responsibility in Congress is working to help make sure we have a world-class public education system for all students,” Franken said in a press release announcing the introduction of the bill. “I’m pleased that the legislation we introduced today includes provisions I authored to allow assessments that measure student growth and strengthen leadership in our schools.”
Franken’s insert in the bill requires state educational agencies to collaborate with child welfare agencies to keep foster children in their original school when it is in their “best interest,” and to transfer them when it is not.
It also requires that all academic and health records kept by a school be maintained and immediately transferred if a child changes schools, and requires that “a child in foster care who is changing schools can transfer school credits and receive partial credits for coursework satisfactorily completed while attending a prior school or educational program.”
Finally, the bill would require educational agencies to create plans that ensure children in foster care “who are attending their schools of origin receive transportation to and from those schools.”
The Harkin bill is not expected to move in the current political climate.
“Don’t expect the Harkin bill to become law,” said Jon Terry of Capitol Hill Strategies, in an e-mail, in which he said he had spoken to the staff of ranking HELP Committee Republican Lamar Alexander (Tenn.). “Senator Alexander…does not support Harkin’s bill and intends to issue his own reauthorization bill in the near future.”
The HELP Committee passed a rewrite of ESEA in 2011 by a vote of 15 to 7, accepting the Franken foster care amendment on the same day of the vote.
“It’s pretty astounding how many homes they’re in throughout their life,” said Franken at the 2011 committee markup, speaking about the high number of placements some foster youths experience. “The least we can do is keep that continuity” of school.
One area of resistance to Franken’s concept in 2011 was the issue of transportation costs for youths who were placed in a foster home far away from their school of origin, a thorny issue in rural states.
“The transportation side is important to big states that have a lot of roads,” said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) at the 2011 markup. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) suggested “maybe some limitations on distance.”
“Yeah, it’s going to cost some money, sometimes, for a kid to get transportation,” Franken said later in the debate, slightly frustrated by the friction on transportation costs. “These are wards of the state. This is our responsibility.”