Budget Changes to Benefit Calif. Foster Youth

For plenty of high school students, it’s hard enough to imagine going to prom without the right party shoes. But what about no shoes at all? That’s the dilemma Carey Sommer faced when he stepped inside Mike Jones’ office a couple days before his school’s homecoming celebration.

“I thought he wore flip flops because he enjoyed it,” Jones said of Sommer, a foster student he worked closely with as a foster youth resource teacher in Sacramento County’s the Elk Grove School District. “But actually, he didn’t have any shoes and no dress clothes. At all.”

Adamant that Sommer experience the simple, awkward, pleasure of a high school dance, Jones took him shopping after school for new shoes, slacks, a shirt and tie.

“He went to the dance the next day and said it was amazing, that it was one of the most fun things he’d ever done,” Jones recalled. “And it really impacted his life and he still talks about it today. And he’s 22 years old. Just a simple dance.”

Stories like that are common for Jones, who has been working with foster youth students in Elk Grove for years. Jones diligently types away behind small glasses in a cluttered, paper-strewn office. But he’s quick to point out that the future of his position is unclear.

Sweeping reforms to the financing of public education at the State Capitol have thrown the future of many programs into question, including Foster Youth Services, which pays half of Jones’ salary. Brown’s plan, commonly referred to as Local Control Funding, would offer increased per-pupil funding to school districts based on numbers of English Language Learners and low-income youth. It would also eliminate more than half of the state’s categorical education programs, including Foster Youth Services (FYS), a 30-year-old program that uses county-level liaisons to monitor the academic progress of foster youths.

The plan for local control has evolved over the past few months in the back and forth between Brown and the Senate. While advocates believe that Brown’s first iteration did little more than pay lip service to foster youth, stripping any guarantee of funding for FYS, some believe that a new plan put for the by the governor will force counties to keep such programs alive through accountability standards.

The Initial Plan

Under Brown’s budget proposal, 47 out of 62 of the state’s “categorical” education programs would be eliminated. The funding from the slashed restricted funds would then be pooled with the general education funds, and distributed to school districts according to the following formula:

  • Each district in California will receive a base grant of about $6,800 per student when fully funded,
  • School districts will receive an extra supplemental grant equal to 35 percent of the base amount ($2,380) for every student who is either an English Learner, Free and Reduced Price Lunch-eligible, or in foster care,
  • Districts where these students account for 50 percent or more of the population will receive another 35 percent ($2,380) per pupil as a concentration grant.

Some education experts hailed the plan as the most dramatic since the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978.

“This funding system would make education funding more transparent and more rational. Some would argue, and I would agree, it makes it more equitable,” Jonathon Kaplan, a senior policy analyst at the California Budget Project, said at a New America Media panel about the budget.

Flexibility will also mean that many of the state’s categorical programs are now decidedly optional, to be continued or not by the counties. One such program is the $15 million Foster Youth Services Program, which plants foster care liaisons in county offices of education. The liaisons work to make sure that their school records and transcripts are kept up to date as they bounce from school to school.

Without the program’s specially trained and placed advocates, many worry about the fate of an already vulnerable population, that comprises less than 1 percent of all K-12 students in California.

“No matter what guarantees are made, services and supports for foster youth are going to become watered down throughout public education in California,” Ben O’Meara, a social work specialist with foster youth services in Mount Diablo Unified School District, said of the original plan.

Brown accounts for disadvantaged youth in his plan with the supplemental grants, which would theoretically provide the funds necessary for counties to continue programs for foster youth. But the supplemental category for foster youth is, in actuality, worthless to the counties.

Proposed Amendments to the Plan

School districts will receive the same amount of additional money whether a student falls into one, two or three of the identified categories (English language learner, free and reduced lunch eligible, or foster youth).

And since all foster children are eligible for the Free and Reduced lunch program anyway, school districts will not receive “a single additional penny” for foster youth, according to a letter addressed to Brown from a wide range of advocate groups.

Nationally and in California, the educational challenges outcomes of foster youth children are far worse than those of other low-income students. Data from the National Center for Youth Law’s Foster Youth Education Initiative shows that nationwide, 75 percent of foster youth perform below grade level, 83 percent are held back by third grade, 50 percent graduate high school or obtain a GED, and less than 3 percent attend a four-year college.

In California, according to a recent report by the Stuart Foundation, foster youth perform worse in high school than economically disadvantaged students, are less likely to complete high school or enroll in a community college, and are more likely to attend schools with low Academic Performance Index (API) ratings, a measurement of individual schools’ academic progress in the state of California.

And perhaps most pertinent to Brown’s funding formula, half of statewide foster youth attended schools with an API in the bottom 30 percent of all schools.

Foster youth advocates have proposed that the formula be amended to count foster children twice –something they’re calling “duplicated weight.” They say that foster children often require more educational support than low-income children and deserve a duplicated weight in the formula.

“Foster students require a level of resources above and beyond what low-income students receive,” said Hahnel said. “So educating them and getting them up to speed requires more resources. But more important than the double counting is holding districts accountable.”

The difference in Elk Grove, for one example, would be an extra $1.1 million in education funds brought in specifically to serve foster youth.

The Latest Revision

Brown submitted a revision this month to his plan that includes a change some advocates say can address some of their concerns without increasing the supplemental contributions by the state.

The May revision of the Governor’s proposed Budget adds foster youth as a subgroup to the Academic Performance Index (API). The changes would:

“Require the Department of Education to report on the educational progress of foster youth as part of the state’s accountability system. In addition, county superintendents will be required to develop plans to coordinate services for foster youth provided by various local agencies, such as county child welfare agencies. This coordination will assist in the maintenance of health and student records and assist in appropriate educational placements.”

If the aggregate educational outcomes for foster youth under the API do not improve, districts would be held accountable, incentivizing them to better serve students in foster care. Additionally, the proposal requires school districts to develop plans designated to improve the educational outcomes of foster youth.

The plans have to include contain goals, and district plans with budgets to accomplish those goals. If they’re not accomplished, county offices of education would be obligated to revise the plans.

Perhaps most importantly, the California Department of Education (CDE) and the California Department of Social Services (CDSS) would be required for the first time to share information crucial to identifying students in foster care.

“We are very pleased that the May revise included an amendment which added foster youth to the Academic Performance Index (API),” a review by the National Center for Youth Law states. “The API measures the performances of schools as well as student academic performance. This new language will incentivize school districts to better serve students in foster care.”

Advocates agree that the accountability new proposal’s accountability measures are a step in the right direction—especially on the district level. But as opposed to districts, County Offices of Education (COEs) are not held accountable for the academic progress of their foster youth.

This gives them “little incentive to support the educational outcomes of these students,” the Youth Law review confirms. “Should the Governor choose to eliminate the FYS program, we believe the May revise should require COEs to at least maintain their current levels of funding for students in foster care countywide.”

Erica Hellerstein is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow and graduate student in Journalism at UC Berkeley

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