The Kids May Be All Right

California lawmakers move towards clarity on whether the sweeping educational reforms they propose will help the state’s 42,000 school-aged foster youth or throw away three decades of national leadership on the issue; while brand new data shows that students in foster care are “at greater risk” for compromised educational outcomes.

Chris H. is on the cusp of graduating high school, and is suffering from a common case of senioritis. But for Chris, getting through these last days of high school will mark the culmination of a much harder road than most children will ever know.

He was dipped in a deep fryer at 14 months, and severely burned. Throughout elementary school, the other students either kept away or bullied him for his deep red scars. At seven, after having been split from his three brothers, Chris was adopted. In his new home he says he was sexually abused until he was 13: old enough to rebel.

Since entering high school in Sacramento County he has attended five different schools. Despite all this, Chris has an impressive life plan: to become an activist fighting for children’s rights.

That he will don the cap and gown on May 20th, is something only 45 percent of foster youth will do according to a new report entitled “At Greater Risk,” released by the Stuart Foundation today.

For the first time ever, researchers from the Center for Social Services Research at the University of California Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare and the Institute for Evidence-Based Change, compared educational outcomes of foster youth to those of other disadvantaged students. Not only do students in foster care graduate at lower rates than their disadvantaged peers, but they do worse throughout high school, are more likely to attend a low-performing school, are less likely to enter community college and have a harder time staying in.

Chart first published in "At Greater Risk" report.

Chart first published in “At Greater Risk” report.

“Fifteen percent of economically disadvantaged 11th graders scored at the lowest proficiency level, far below basic, compared with 23 percent of the sampled foster youth,” the report reads.

In addition, 52 percent of foster youth attended schools, which fell in the bottom 30 percent of all California Schools in the Academic Performance Index (API), as compared to 40 percent of students in the general population.

That Chris is about to graduate is due at least in part to the almost daily check-ins by a teacher named Mike Jones, who roves Elk Grove Unified School District on a mission to make sure its disproportionately high number of foster youth have a chance to unleash their potential. Half of Jones’ salary comes from federal Title I funds, the other from the state’s imperiled Foster Youth Services Program.

Where schoolmates saw only scars, Jones only sees potential. “Chris has huge goals,” Jones says. He admits that it is hard for a young man like Chris, who has endured so much, to keep focused. But if he can, Jones says, “this kid is gonna change the world.”

Chris’ interpretation of Jones’ approach is a little more matter of fact. “Mike does pull lots of kids heads out their asses, and tells them they can do better,” Chris says.

Jones’ advice about doing better could well be directed at California lawmakers engaged in the increasingly acrimonious debate over how to reform education financing. When it comes to how foster youth will fare in the imminent education overhaul, lawmakers have an opportunity to either fail them miserably or take the kind of strides policymakers, experts, foster youth and advocates have been dreaming of for decades.

Gov. Brown delivering his State of the State Address in January.

Gov. Brown delivering his State of the State Address in January.

In January, Governor Jerry Brown unveiled a bold $56 billion plan to reform the ailing, and often failing school system. His proposal, dubbed the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), has been praised as a serious effort to clean up a dizzying bureaucracy and distribute limited funds to the students in most need first.

It would offer increased per-pupil funding to school districts based on the number of English Language Learners and low income students, and enhanced “concentration” grants to districts where more than half the students fall into those categories. Despite the governor’s proclamation that students in foster care were one of the at-risk groups the formula was created to help, no new money is tied to those students.

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the Brown administrations’ Department of Finance, acknowledged that foster youth were categorically eligible for free or reduced meals price meals, and thus automatically included in the “low-income” designation, but said that they weren’t dissimilar from other disadvantaged groups and didn’t require any weight tied to them directly.

“We aren’t aware of any research or anecdotal evidence that would suggest that these groups be treated differently,” Palmer wrote in an email to The Imprint in February. “So while foster youth are not being granted a double or additional weight, their unique needs are certainly being addressed through the generation of supplemental and concentration grant funding, as well as the requirement that districts demonstrate how they will address the needs of these students in their local accountability plans.”

Admittedly, Palmer wrote this before the Stuart Foundation released its report. But with the apples to apples comparison “At Greater Risk” offers, the assertion that foster youth shouldn’t be treated differently becomes harder to defend.

Another key part of the governor’s funding formula is the elimination of the myriad categorical funding streams that have been characterized by uneven, and unfair distribution of monies to school districts and county offices of education.

Chris Ferguson of the Department of Finance has a hard time answering questions as to why TIIG was retained in the LCFF.

Chris Ferguson of the Department of Finance has a hard time answering questions as to why TIIG was retained in the LCFF.

In the slashing spree, some dubious relics have been saved. Most glaringly exempted was the Targeted Instructional Improvement Grant (TIIG), which was designed to reduce segregation in schools and is disbursed erratically, with half the $855 million allocation going to one school district out of a thousand: Los Angeles Unified.

When pressed on the decision to retain TIIG in a heated Assembly Budget Subcommittee hearing in February, the Brown Administration’s Chris Ferguson was nonplussed and incapable of offering a cogent explanation of why such a patently politically motivated decision was anything other than exactly that.

While political powerhouses like Los Angeles Unified held ground in the categorical purge, the $15 million Foster Youth Services (FYS) program, which places foster youth advocates in all 58 County Offices of Education and five core school districts, including Elk Grove, was eliminated and rolled into the general fund.

The 30-year-program is grant-based, and has results. A report submitted to the Governor in October of 2012, found that “70 percent of eligible foster youth received a high school diploma, passed the General Education Development Test, or received a certificate of completion,” well over the 45 percent found to complete high school in the study released today.

Assemblymember Susan Bonilla was the first CA legislator to go on the record in support of saving FYS.

Assemblymember Susan Bonilla was the first CA legislator to go on the record in support of saving FYS.

Foster youth advocates mounted an offensive to save FYS that played out in the pages of The San Francisco Chronicle, on KQED Radio and online in EdSource and this publication. They were assured by legislative staff and at least one Assemblymember that Foster Youth Services was important and should be protected.

Early last week Brown threatened that those who oppose his plan would “face the battle of their lives.”The next day a gang of nine State Senators, including Senate President pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) released an education reform proposal of their own, Senate Bill 69, which follows the principals of the Governor’s original plan, but leaves open the opportunity for a more robust debate.

“We need to explore this further and want to engage in dialogue with the Governor to come up with best way to help the most students and the students who need it the most,” said Steinberg spokesman Mark Hedlund in an interview with The Imprint. “Nothing is set in stone.”

The Senate plan is, of yet, no better for foster youth than Brown’s plan and possibly worse. SB 69 would eliminate the concentration grants, freeing up more funds to increase the base rate to all districts, an apparent response to more affluent school districts’ fiery backlash to the governor’s plan.

Another possible use of the savings would be to increase the supplemental grants, something that would serve low income and English language learners, but not foster youth unless they were actually counted separately from the low income category.

The bill offers higher accountability for at-risk students by giving the state and county offices of education the ability to intervene in districts where outcomes are not forthcoming and ensuring “that supplemental funds generated by low income, English learner, and foster pupils are used to improve services to those pupils, and not to supplant existing resources dedicated to those pupils.”

But again: foster youth are already categorically eligible for the federal National School Lunch Program, the proxy for low-income students. This means that school districts won’t actually draw down any additional dollars for foster youth, even if the supplemental grants go up.

As one advocate told me, “zero plus zero still equals zero.”

On May 1st the Senate Education Committee will hold a hearing on SB 69.

On April 30th, Senate consultant Danny Alvarez submitted an analysis for the committee that recommends that Foster Youth Services be taken out of the “pool” of categoricals slated for elimination in the Gov.’s plan:  “Strike from the “pool” foster youth programs… maintaining FYPs would be consistent with the intent of providing essential services for this targeted population.”

If accepted by the Education Committee, this would be one of two advantages for foster youth over Brown’s plan.

While the governor evoked the principle that “equal treatment for students in unequal circumstances is not justice,” it is SB 69 that is offering the time for advocates to lay out a plan to radically improve the state’s educational pipeline for foster youth.

“FYS is not repealed in SB 69, because there needs to be a fully vetted public policy discussion related to its role in comprehensive systematic education reform,” said Jackie Wong, a current Steinberg staffer and the former head of Foster Youth Services.

Having spent countless hours talking with everyone from advocates, to foster youth, to staffers and policymakers, I will offer a framework for how California’s leaders can ensure serious gains for foster youth, and in so doing live up to the principal driving this entire education reform effort: That the state must do the most for those students who currently have the least opportunity and face the gravest educational challenges.

This framework leans heavily on the experts I have interviewed, but also reflects ideas developed on my own. It is built on three basic principals: oversight, accountability and funding.

County offices of education (COEs) are well situated to oversee the outcomes of foster youth in vast counties with multiple school districts. There are 18 school districts in Alameda County and Los Angeles County has more that 80. Whatever the final education funding formula looks like, there will be a need for the county to follow youth as they bounce from one geographically disparate school district to the next.

But saving Foster Youth Services alone is not enough.

In an interview with The Imprint in March, Senator Leland Yee (D-San Mateo/San Francisco), a former member of the San Francisco Unified School District Board of Education and current chair of the powerful Senate Human Services Committee, pointed to the need for strict accountability measures for students in foster care.

Credit: The Wall Street Journal Sen. Leland Yee

Credit: The Wall Street Journal
Sen. Leland Yee

“At the end of the day there has got to be some kind of hybrid plan,” Yee said, “where we will give local districts some of that control over the money and the responsibility. But at the state level we have to have enough guidelines. It is important to recognize that foster youth have unique issues and need specific programs.”

To achieve this “hybrid” of local control coupled with accountability for foster youths’ educational outcomes, school districts and COEs must first track the youth in their systems by linking child welfare and education data. The Stuart Foundation has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into just such an effort and will be releasing results in August.

In addition, the passage of the federal Uninterrupted Scholars Act, which amends the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to give child welfare administrations access to foster student records, will streamline the process even further.

With those data linkages, districts, COEs and the California Department of Education will be able to track foster youth as a subgroup when calculating a school’s Academic Performance Index score. API scores can then be used to measure a given district’s overall success in improving educational outcomes for foster youth. When improvements fail to materialize sanctions can be imposed.

Finally, the new funding formulas must actually include foster youth. In either the Governor’s plan or SB 69 this would cost roughly $100 million in additional supplemental grants for California’s 42,000 school-aged foster youth. This could easily be paid for by eliminating the unevenly administered $855 million TIIG and the $491 million Home-to-School Visiting Program, as recommended by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Under the Governor’s plan, concentration grants kick in for districts with 50 percent or more disadvantaged students. This threshold could be increased, freeing up money to both pad the base rate and meaningfully count foster youth.

The Senate plan would raise the base rate for all districts. This is achieved by eliminating the concentration grants. Under SB 69, supplemental grants would have to go up significantly for all at-risk groups, and separately count foster youth. Even in such a scheme, all district base rates could go up.

So, for all the talk of battles between the governor and the legislature, there seems to be an elegant solution that embodies the thrust of the overall reform by putting the most vulnerable students – those in foster care – first.

Now all we need is somebody like Mike Jones to come along and tell our leaders what he has told hundreds of foster youth for years now. That even if things look rough today, they have to stay the course, work hard and in so doing will have a chance to leave a lasting positive impact on the lives of others.

Daniel Heimpel is the Publisher of the Chronicle of Social Change and the Founder of Fostering Media Connections

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