By Anna Maier and Zefora Ortiz
When Eric Wagoner was placed into foster care at age 10, his life was uprooted and his education disrupted. He had to move to a different city and enroll in a new school. He was scared and alone, and struggled to stay on top of his schoolwork. The curriculum at his new school was ahead of the lessons offered in his previous fifth-grade class. Despite the hardships he faced, he did not receive any special tutoring or support to help him catch up.
“I got very behind and missed key lessons,” Wagoner said, now age 20. “I wish I’d had someone there to listen who understood my struggles.”
These challenges followed him throughout his school years. Once he fell behind, it was difficult for him to make up the skills he missed out on due to switching schools. Now in community college, he is still taking remedial classes. Eventually he hopes to transfer to a four-year university. Although he is optimistic about his future, there is no doubt that he could be much closer to achieving his goal of a college degree if he had received more support earlier in his life.
Many foster youth like Wagoner face similar educational hurdles. A 2013 study conducted by WestEd called The Invisible Achievement Gap found that foster youth change schools frequently. They also have low test scores and high dropout rates.
These problems concern California Assemblymember Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), a former school board member and college professor. Weber views education as the path to success for foster youth, as long as they receive the support they need to stay in school and keep up academically. As a result, she has introduced AB 854, a bill that seeks to strengthen the California’s Foster Youth Services (FYS) program.
The legislation would make FYS supports such as counseling and tutoring available to all foster youth, so that they are able to complete high school and be prepared to attend college or vocational training. Proponents of the new legislation are optimistic that the time has arrived to better support students in foster care.
An Urgent Need
In 2013, there were nearly 60,000 young people in foster care in California, according to KidsData.org. While this represents a slow but steady decrease over the past 15 years, there are still tens of thousands of children whose lives are impacted by child welfare policy.
Two-thirds of foster youth – about 40,000 children— are ineligible for tutoring and counseling by the FYS program because of their placement type, according to Jacqueline Wong, director of FosterEd California. Foster youth who are placed with a family member do not qualify in most districts, while students who are living with a non-related foster family or in a group home receive support. This policy is partly due to the perception that young people living with family members are less in need of support than those living with nonrelatives.
Research does not confirm this assumption, though. The Invisible Achievement Gap report found that youth in relative foster homes did not graduate from high school or attend/complete community college at greater rates than their peers in nonrelative foster homes.
“This creates a real discrepancy in how young people are served,” said Michelle Lustig, manager of Foster Youth and Homeless Education Services in San Diego County.
Lustig described a scenario in which a student might be moved out of a group home to live with a family member, and suddenly she would be forced to pull all support services for the student.
“We’ve been asking for a number of years to serve all children regardless of placement type,” she said. “Children typically move through many placements, some qualify for services and some do not.”
AB 854 would remove the restriction on relative placements and allow for more consistent service provision. The lack of consistency in available support is especially concerning to advocates given the dismal educational outcomes for foster youth. The 2013 WestEd report found that one-third of foster youth change schools at least once during the course of the school year, while just 29 percent of foster youth were proficient in language arts and 37 percent were proficient in math.
Long-term educational outcomes are just as bleak. A 2006 study conducted on behalf of the state legislature found that nearly half of foster youth (46 percent) drop out of high school—compared with 16 percent of non-foster youth—and less than 10 percent enroll in college.
“I feel strongly that I need the authority to serve students with the greatest need,” said Lustig.
Foster Youth Services Support
The Foster Youth Services program began as a pilot in 1973 with four California school districts, and a 1981 statute formally established and funded FYS in the four pilot districts. In 1998, the state legislature expanded grant funding to county Offices of Education with an emphasis on serving students in group homes. The 2006-07 State Budget renewed existing FYS funding and provided additional grant money for county Offices of Education to serve a broader array of foster youth, including those in juvenile detention facilities. FYS programming looks a little different in each county. But in Mt. Diablo Unified (one of the original pilot districts), the approach is working. The program supports all foster youth, regardless of their placement type. The district partners with group homes, mental health providers and local universities in order to provide comprehensive support.
“We get to see kids who are smiling and feeling good about themselves,” said James Wogan, administrator of School Linked Services, which oversees FYS programming in the district. “Many people thought [these students] would need a higher level of placement, but they get support from their peers as well as us. The culture has really taken off here.”
Throughout the state, FYS programming is showing similarly positive outcomes. A California Department of Education report for the 2012-13 school year found that participating foster youth exceeded their 90 percent target rate for attendance, and more than 70 percent of students who received tutoring met their goals for academic growth. Less than one percent of participating foster youth were expelled from school, far surpassing the target rate of less than 5 percent expulsion.
The Moment Has Arrived
The proposed expansion of FYS under AB 854 is coming at a time when California foster youth are receiving heightened attention in the education world. The Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), the new school funding formula passed by the legislature in 2013, provides extra money to foster youth in any type of placement.
Along with the money that districts are receiving to support foster youth comes heightened expectations that they will do a better job of serving these vulnerable students. However, many officials may lack the experience necessary to know how to best meet the needs of foster youth.
Vanessa Hernandez, policy coordinator for California Youth Connection—an advocacy organization run by current and former foster youth—notes that school officials have little knowledge of who the foster youth in the system are, or what type of support FYS offers. Over the years, it has been the county FYS workers who have developed expertise on working with foster youth.
“They are experts who can guide the school districts,” Hernandez said.
Wong of FosterEd California emphasized that AB 854 is about more than just expanding FYS eligibility.
“It’s about trying to leverage Foster Youth Services expertise,” she said.
School administrators are trying to learn about child welfare concepts, and they need support from the experts. Wogan agrees.
“Some districts don’t have the staff capacity or knowledge to serve foster youth effectively, even if they have the desire,” he said. “AB 854 would fund county Offices of Education to really provide that guidance.”
What Comes Next for AB 854
AB 854 passed out of the Assembly Education Committee on May 4, 2015, and the Assembly Appropriations Committee on May 28, 2015, with unanimous, bipartisan support. There are currently 26 organizations in support and none opposing.
“The more we understand about the needs of foster youth, how to improve and expedite services, the better job we can do at the local level,” said Teri Burns, senior director of Policy and Programs for the California School Boards Association. Burns’ organization has endorsed AB 854, along with the California Teachers Association.
Expanding FYS programming to the 40,000 youth who are not currently covered does not come cheap. A coalition of organizations and local education agencies has submitted a budget request for an additional $20 to $30 million to support Foster Youth Services programming in 2015-16.
While this additional funding is not guaranteed, supporters of AB 854 are optimistic that the request is reasonable, especially given the recent funding increases for foster youth in public schools. If 40,000 additional foster youth received FYS programming, the cost per student would be in the range of $500 to $750 per year, based on the $20 million to $30 million budget request.
“Students in foster care are the state’s children,” said Wong. “Look at how kids in foster care are doing educationally—we have failed them. If we have said we are better parents than their own parents, then what are we doing to give them a better future?”
AB 854 was referred to the Senate Education Committee on June 11.
Anna Maier and Zefora Ortiz are graduate students of public policy at the U.C. Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy. They wrote this story while enrolled in the Goldman School’s Journalism for Social Change class.