The Child First Movement

The education of children in Foster Care is one step in a long, needed march towards a future where we put all Children First.

We stand as a nation weakened by our ailing public education system. In comparison to other developed countries, our children are consistently out-educated and outperformed. If reforms of the system continue to be neglected, American children will ultimately be outpaced. The once powerful engine of the American economy, our exceptional capacity for innovation, has been degraded, casting a dark pall on the bright future we must now fight to achieve.

Despite a clear trajectory downward, our priorities are still elsewhere. The Federal Government currently spends $7.00 on the elderly for every $1.00 we spend on children. We dole out more than $900 billion a year on the military compared to $300 million on all kids programs, including education. We spend 5 percent of the federal budget serving debt, and only 4 percent more than that serving children.

This is a business plan to bankruptcy, and the turning point will be our ability to provide educational opportunity to all children.

The symptoms of our educational neglect show in achievement gaps, high dropout rates, low achievement scores, excessive student mobility and lack of teacher accountability. More disturbing still is the distribution of these symptoms. If you are a poor child from a poor neighborhood, the likelihood that you will suffer through one or more of these detriments to your education is not only high, but flatly predictable. We are a culture that does not apply what UC Berkeley Professor David Kirp calls the "Golden Rule: every child deserves what's good enough for a child you love."

And in a system where certain children apparently "deserve" more than others, there is one group upon whom these symptoms converge in virulent severity: students experiencing foster care.

These children, cast into the foster care system for no fault of their own, are bounced from foster care placement to placement and accordingly bounce from school to school. This instability wreaks havoc on these students' ability to succeed in school and as adults in a world where opportunity is increasingly distributed with callous inequity.

There are 423,000 children experiencing foster care in this country. They represent as little as one percent of the entire school population. Giving these children the opportunity we would give "a child we love" is entirely possible. But of yet we are a society more geared to funding war than supporting children.

"Investing in [children] is not a national luxury or a national choice," said Marian Wright Edelman, the founder of Children's Defense Fund. "It's a national necessity. If the foundation of your house is crumbling, you don't say you can't afford to fix it while you're building astronomically expensive fences to protect it from outside enemies."

"The issue is not, 'are we going to pay,' it's 'are we going to pay now, up front, or are we going to pay a whole lot more later on.' "

The scary reality is that even as we watch the cracks run up the wall and the roof cave in, we do little of substance to change our trajectory. This is understandable, the problems seem so big that us ordinary people think we could never do it. It's easier to hope that someone else will provide help, or worse, acknowledge that no one will, and still do nothing.

We need to start the change where help is needed most. I believe that starting place is giving our collective foster children the opportunity to succeed, and one of the key components is providing these children with adequate opportunity to succeed in school.

On the Road to Educational Equality

So in May, we at Fostering Media Connections decided to try and rally a diverse set of stakeholders around this idea of educational equality for all students through a series of town hall-style events. In the span of one short week, in auditoriums at Western New England College, Harvard Law School and Rhode Island College, we had the chance to engage with hundreds of people dedicated to improving the lives of children.

From the start, the goals were simple: 1) expedite the state-level implementation of the educational stability mandates laid out in federal child welfare law; 2) use this progress as a ballast to vault the education of children experiencing foster care into the broader national conversation around education reform; 3) test the viability of a true "Child First" political platform, wherein all political decisions are made with the interest of children first.

So on the back end of a wild week to close out May, I wanted to note the progress made and encourage all of us everyday people to build on that momentum and drive change through the lens of educational opportunity for our nation's sons and daughters in foster care.

During the Town Hall we produced at Harvard Law School on May 24, Massachusetts Department of Children and Families Commissioner Angelo McClain announced that, by September, his administration would finalize a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education around the educational stability and achievement of students experiencing foster care.

This was a substantive step towards implementing the educational stability mandates laid out in 2008's Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which compels state child welfare administrations to keep children in the school they attended prior to entering foster care. If a school change is deemed in a child's best interest, the act ensures that his or her records are transferred quickly.

Of course, ensuring school stability, rapid transfer of records and swift enrollment for students in foster care requires the public school system to be aware and engaged in helping these kids. That is why the MOU is so important. Thereafter, both agencies will be formally vested in the achievement of children in foster care.

Alongside powerful partners from child welfare, education and media we pounded through this theme of collaboration at our kick off event at Western New England College, through Cambridge and at our closing event at Rhode Island College in Providence.

A dozen or more stories on this very specific theme played out on TV, radio, in newspapers and throughout the Internet.

But how does all of this connect to the larger debate around the re-authorization of No Child Left Behind, education in America and the need to sustain a broad-shouldered Child First movement? That connection now comes from people with a desire to learn about the issue. Readers like you have already taken that important step.

I am not going to ask you to advocate for any specific bill, or to flood certain elected officials with pro-forma emails of support. Rather, I ask you to reach out to who ever think can make a difference and tell them what happened in Massachusetts and Rhode Island "On the Road to Educational Equality." Please, tell them that leveling the educational playing field for all students is hard but possible, and that if we can do it for children in foster care we can do it for all kids.

Through Fostering Media Connections I have crisscrossed the country studying solutions to our nation's problems as they pertain to vulnerable children and families. After all that, and having spent a week meeting hundreds of people dedicated to child-powered change, I can say in full confidence that there exists in this country a true and full-throated "Child First" grassroots movement. We spoke with leaders who came out of foster care, educators bent on change, researchers arming the movement with empirical data, social workers fighting every day, jurists and attorneys zealously advocating for children, journalists prepared to probe and benefactors committed to putting kids first.

Such a group of disparate yet unified voices has the power to change America's narrative to one of hope. A future peopled by children given adequate opportunity to succeed is not only necessary; it is entirely achievable.

Join us.

- Daniel Heimpel is the director of Fostering Media Connections (FMC), a project of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. FMC harnesses the power of journalism and media to drive public and political will behind policy and practice that improve the well-being of children in foster care.