Calif. Budget Battle Threatens Education of Vulnerable Children

California state governmentAs Friday’s constitutional deadline for a California state budget looms, Gov. Jerry Brown’s Administration is at a loggerheads with advocates about the future of mandates supporting the educational success of vulnerable children.

In an effort to save nominal cash on the processing of a one-page form and photocopies of student records, advocates argue that the Governor’s Department of Finance is not only hurting the educational progress of vulnerable children, but is also shooting itself in the fiscal foot.

Tucked deep in the Governor’s Trailer Bill outlining the policy changes accompanying the Administration’s 2012-13 state budget, Public Counsel Attorney Laura Faer found two obscure yet important policy changes that will affect vulnerable children. The Brown Administration plans to suspend re-imbursements to school districts as part of the Caregiver Affidavit Program and constrain California’s progressive policy on educational records for foster youth.

A report outlining the Legislature’s 2012-13 Budget Plan released by the Assembly Budget Committee late June 11th rejected the Administration’s proposal to shelve these and 16 other mandates up for suspension.

But Faer and a group of foster care advocates are settling in for a fight. They say this in an example of a broader trend of cutting programs that have obvious and immediate benefits for children, and the state’s bottom line.

“What is sad is that somehow anything that might potentially have a cost is just being swiped away without any close analysis,” Faer said. “Key pieces of laws that were put into place and that made California one of the national leaders in the education of vulnerable children will be lost in one fell swoop. It is ironic. We are in a really sad state.”

Between 2009-2011 there were an average of 333,000 California children living with kin, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center, and all but 16,000 of them did so outside of the child welfare system. Financial instability, incarceration, illness, deportation and myriad other causes contribute to the number of parents who can’t care for their children and thus leave them with kin.

Until the mid-1990s, living with a relative could prove a substantial impediment to a child’s educational success, because school districts were not obliged to enroll those children unless the caregiver produced adequate documentation from the biological parent or became a legal guardian him or herself. This was – and is – an expensive, time-consuming process, which slows down school enrollment, retarding student advancement.

In 1994, state legislation was passed, allowing relative caregivers to fill out a one-page form, which affirmed that they were the caregivers, thus compelling schools to enroll these children immediately.

The program has cost an average of $584,123.20 per year in the five years from 2006-07 to 2010-11, according to the Department of Finance.

“This is not a decision to single out any specific mandate but part of a broader policy of the administration to either suspend or eliminate all K-12 mandates that are not associated with core student health and safety issues,” said Department Spokesman H.D. Palmer.

But suspending the Affidavit Program will have real costs. Advocates argue that courts will soon be swamped with countless thousands of relatives applying for guardianship, forcing costly investigations and lawyer’s fees.

“The bottom line is that there is no way the state could conduct that many guardianships a year, or financially afford to require all these children to obtain legal guardianships before entering school,” wrote Karen Jones-Mason of the Northern California Association of Counsel for Children in a letter to the Governor, the State Board of Education as well as the Senate and Assembly Budget Committees. “The cost would be astronomical.”

Eric Harper, child welfare analyst for the non-partisan Legislative Analyst’s Office in Sacramento, explains how cuts in one policy area can have unforeseen consequences in others: “In general we wouldn’t recommend a cut that would end up costing the state more.” And while the LAO had not conducted an analysis on the effect of the bill or taken a position, Harper said, “if everyone had to get a guardianship, there certainly is a cost. It wouldn’t be free.”

In addition to the Caregiver Affidavits, the trailer bill would suspend key provisions in education policy regarding foster youth, potentially throwing a wrench into nearly a decade’s worth of progressive policy and practice that has set California on the vanguard of a national effort to improve educational outcomes for foster youth.

Advocates contend that the Department of Finance proposes saving $200,000 in photocopying costs by eliminating Foster Family Agencies’ (FFAs) ability to obtain foster children’s educational records from school districts. FFAs are private agencies that contract with California’s county foster care administrations to handle casework.

“If the state is worried about the cost of photocopies, the FFAs will pay for the photo copies,” said Danielle Mole, policy advocate for the California Alliance of Children and Family Services, which represents many of the state’s Foster Family Agencies.

Front line workers argue that they need these records to serve the best interests of children, and that if their access is stymied they will have to go through the county social worker, further slowing the process down.

“It just becomes cumbersome,” said Stephanie Antonioli a regional manager for EMQ FamiliesFirst. “It is the kids who are losing the services, and the kids who are suffering more than anything else.”

In addition, the trailer bill would suspend Education Code sections ensuring the timely transfer of foster students records as they get bounced from school to school. The rapid transfer of school records was a key component of Assembly Bill 490, which took effect in 2004 and set the tone for national policy on the education of foster youth. This California law influenced federal child welfare policy in 2008 and helped frame an amendment to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act written by Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.).

Tuesday, June 12th is slated for the next round of negotiations on California’s budget.

-Daniel Heimpel is the Director of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change

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