Under federal law, states are required to help maintain a stable educational environment for youth in foster care, even when the children’s personal lives are in tumult. But most places are struggling to follow the law, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office released Wednesday and provided early to HuffPost.
The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act that governs K-12 education says that children in foster care should remain in the same school, even if their home placement changes, unless it is against their best interest. States, school districts and child welfare agencies decide how to arrange and fund a child’s transportation to school in these cases, though they may no longer live in the district.
The GAO report surveyed representatives from 50 states, and held discussion groups with child welfare workers, foster parents and youth to check on the law’s implementation around the country.
Many states reported a tangle of bureaucratic problems in coordinating with districts and child welfare agencies on issues facing these children. Nearly 40 states said that their points of contact in districts were not aware of their responsibilities, a phenomenon they attributed to high rates of turnover. Similarly, most states said they struggled to find ways to work with districts in arranging ways for these students to travel to the schools they had been attending.
School districts reported a variety of transportation methods used for such students, including rides provided by child welfare agency staff, rejiggering bus routes or sending taxis to pick up the children. But these options are expensive, and can be unreliable. One school district reported spending over $30,000 a year to transport one student.
Even identifying which students are in foster care can prove challenging. Nine out of 10 school districts interviewed for the report said they don’t have a way of tracking which students are in the system, and seven said they don’t have a system to track when a student leaves or enters care.
And if a school district is not even aware of students in the foster care system, there’s no way of knowing when they may require the assistance mandated by the federal law.
The U.S. Department of Education also has fallen short in providing states with the necessary resources and guidance, the GAO report found. A list of points of contact on these issues used by the department was inaccurate.
The stakes are high for these students. Compared to 87% of the general population, just 58% of youth in foster care graduate from high school by age 19. Studies show that transience can have a detrimental impact on scholastic achievement ― students can lose four to six months of learning every time they switch schools.
In 2017, around 270,000 school-aged children were living in foster care, per the GAO.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) requested the GAO report. Responding to its findings, she said, “The Department of Education must do everything it can to help states ensure every student has the stable education they need to thrive.”
“Children in foster care are some of our most vulnerable students, and they should be able to stay with their friends, teachers and counselors at their school even when they move to a new foster care placement,” Murray said in an e-mail.
The Every Student Succeeds Act also requires states to report graduation rates for students in foster care. However, a 2018 investigation by HuffPost and The Hechinger Report found that most states were falling short on this front, too. At that time, only four states could identify graduation rates for those children.
For those four states, the graduation rates ranged from a low of 11% in Georgia to 51.4% in Nebraska.
As part of the investigation, only three states could provide concrete evidence that they were working to make sure students remained in the same schools after moving placements.