Children taken into foster care suffer many losses: The loss of their parents. The loss of their homes and sibling bonds. Sometimes the loss of their traditions, culture, and kinship networks.
There’s another foundation frequently wrenched from beneath them as well: schools, which can be a child’s central source of safety and stability.
In 2015, for the first time, Congress took that need seriously, completing a long-awaited update to a federal education law regulating school funding. The updated law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, included a provision that cemented foster children’s right to remain in their school of origin, even if they change homes and move out of the district. It also required child welfare agencies and education departments to work together on reducing the number of school transfers.
Eight years later, however, many states have fallen short on implementing that provision of the law. And the pandemic has only exacerbated one of the biggest logistical challenges: finding and paying for enough buses and drivers to transport the children from foster homes to their original schools. Education and child welfare experts who are familiar with the inner workings of the Every Student Succeeds Act say these woes are emblematic of a larger issue with the federal reform that precedes COVID-19 — its absent enforcement, reliable funding, and accountability.
While the act was an important step in the right direction, youth advocates say, it doesn’t go far enough to solve a problem still negatively impacting the lives of thousands of American school children.
With each move, students lose FOUR MONTHS of learning, changes that can have negative impacts on THEIR ability to create critical social bonds.
“There are some states that have done it well and many places are still struggling,” said Kathleen McNaught, associate director of the Washington, D.C.-based American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law. “Transportation costs are huge. Couple that with the last few years of practically nonexistent transportation in some communities for any student — not to mention this extra effort to provide transportation for vulnerable students — it’s a tricky balance.”
As a result, local communities have had to resort to new measures to get foster kids to the right schools. When the transportation companies they usually contract with fell short on drivers in recent years, a well-regarded program in Hamilton County, Ohio, called Kids in School Rule issued gas cards to kinship families. Rewritten contracts with foster families hold them responsible for the first two weeks of transportation, to give the schools more time to find an alternative.
Without such measures, or when they fall short, “it means our kids are not getting to school on time, are not getting picked up,” said Gaja Karyala, the educational programs director at Hamilton County Job and Family Services. “Transportation continues to be a bigger challenge now.”
In desperate cases, when no buses or drivers are available, child welfare workers take on the responsibility themselves, driving kids to and from school every day. Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center in Pennsylvania, said transportation plans must go far beyond such measures. Most county child welfare workers do not have enough time to drive to pick children up and drop them off, trips that can take as long as 45 minutes each way.
The Every Student Succeeds Act states that the child welfare agency and school district must coordinate and pay for transportation, but it doesn’t specify who is ultimately responsible. Some states, like Rhode Island, have drafted legislation specifying which government agency must pay transportation costs. In some parts of the country, the child welfare agencies have taken on the responsibility of finding and paying for transportation. In other places, it’s mostly the district’s responsibility.
“That is not sustainable long term,” McInerney said.
‘There’s all this instability’
According to the Oregon Social Learning Center, a nonprofit research firm, children in foster care are three times more likely than their peers to change schools, and six times more likely to change schools three times or more. With each move, students lose four months of learning, changes that can have negative impacts on the children’s ability to create critical social bonds.
Nevaeh Brewer, now 21, experienced those hardships. Brewer, who lives in Tacoma, Washington, entered foster care as an 11-year-old, and said she moved between foster and group homes dozens of times — an ever-shifting series of middle and high schools.
“I’m at one school and we’re on chapter one, and I go to another school and they’re on chapter four,” she recalled. “It’s really hard because there’s all this instability, and then you go school and you’re like, ‘I have no clue what you’re talking about.’”
Brewer said the many schools left her feeling like an outcast as a foster youth, and she lost motivation to study.
“At a certain point, school wasn’t fun for me,” she said. “I was the weird kid, I didn’t have a cellphone, I didn’t get to go out and hang out with my friends at the mall. I felt like nobody really understood what it was like.”
Brewer ended up dropping out of high school, running away, and becoming homeless.
Yet despite the odds, at 16, she earned her GED, worked largely on her own to make her way to college and graduated last summer from Pierce College with an associate’s degree in Social Service Behavioral Health. She is now pursuing a bachelor’s degree in the same field at the University of Washington.
The Every Student Succeeds Act is meant to help students like Brewer by providing them the right to stay in the same school and, hopefully, put down roots, make friends, learn, and grow. But while Brewer was switching schools, an official with Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction told the Seattle Times the state was having a hard time creating affordable transportation plans and coordinating among child welfare agencies and school districts, in part due to high staff turnover and the limited capacity of workers already stretched too thin.
A 2019 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office on whether states were complying with the foster care provision of the Every Student Succeeds Act showed that Washington wasn’t alone. At the time, school district employees in more than three dozen states reported that it was unclear what their responsibilities were for ensuring school stability for foster youth.
School district staff were not reliably participating in meetings to determine if and how foster children could remain in their schools of origin, or didn’t even know a child’s address had changed, the federal watchdog found. Transportation options were limited in rural areas, where school children had to be transported even longer distances.
“An Arizona local child welfare official explained that while they can use taxis to transport youth, they are not approved for use for children age 6 and younger,” one official is quoted as saying.
In another case, a child in foster care in Arizona told investigators she missed a week of school because the taxi provided by the child welfare agency failed to pick her up.
A student placed in a group home in Ohio remained in the same school district, but “her commute was long — she needed to take two public buses — and she sometimes missed dinner.”
The majority of school districts surveyed in the report also said they didn’t have a system to track students in foster care, let alone the number of schools they attend. That’s a deficiency that persists to this day.
McInerney of Pennsylvania said since it was not required by the Every Student Succeeds Act, most states did not act on their own to gather the data needed for corrective action.
“If you track it, you do something about it,” McInerney said.
The Department of Human Services in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, is one agency that does collect data on foster children’s educational paths. The effort began in 2015, at a time when roughly 30% to 50% of foster children who could remain in their schools in the county were being allowed to do so. Three years later, after the department created a four-person “education stability team” and increased financial investment in transportation, the percentage grew to 80%, according to the local department.
But collecting data is only the first step, foster youth advocates say. California is one of the few places that collects data statewide. But the school stability rate for that population remains stubbornly low, even in a state that leads others in its efforts. In the 2021-22 school year, 65% of foster youth remained in their school of origin, compared with nearly 90% for all students. The foster student rate was lower than all other student groups, including homeless students.
Former foster youth Vanessa Espericueta attended three middle schools and four high schools — one for only nine days.
The disparity is notable in California since the state has had its own policy ensuring school stability for foster youth since 2004, illustrating the difficulty of the child-to-school match when kids are bounced between far-flung homes.
Jill Rowland, the education program director at the Alliance for Children’s Rights, attributes this in part to a lack of coordination in some counties between child welfare agencies and school districts. Often, she said, schools aren’t alerted when a child is moving homes, so they don’t look for new transportation options.
“If notice doesn’t happen, then school stability doesn’t happen,” Rowland said. “It’s been the law for many, many years, and there’s just no accountability.”
That leaves students like Vanessa Espericueta of San Jose, California, poorly served. Espericueta, a 28-year-old former foster youth, attended three middle schools and four high schools, one for only nine days.
It wasn’t until she enrolled in San Jose City College, where she’s earning an associate’s degree in sociology, that she found educational stability. After hearing about the nonprofit Pivotal from a classmate who is also a former foster youth, Espericueta reached out. The group paired her with a mentor who helps keep her on task and checks in regularly on her well-being.
That support has been transformational for Espericueta. But it has also caused her to reflect on the years she got by in school on sheer grit and determination.
As she fell further behind in school, Espericueta moved to a continuation school for students at risk of not graduating. In an effort to catch up with her peers, she stayed up late at night reading and writing book reports for English class, and taking every extra-credit opportunity she could find. When she thought about giving up, her older sister encouraged her to keep going, having graduated herself as the first in their family.
“She would tell me, ‘If I can do it, you can do it,” Espericueta recalled. “So I was like, ‘OK, we’re going to do this.’”