Nearly half a million children in the United States are in foster care, many in non-relative settings or group homes, and spend an average of 20 months in foster care before adoption, reunification or emancipation.
Youth in foster care experience significant obstacles in their lives, and the pandemic will only exacerbate the challenges of frequent transitions between homecare placements and schools and unmet physical and mental health needs. Amid these challenges, foster parents juggle multiple priorities to ensure their foster children’s most basic needs are met, often focusing on getting children to school or logged into distance learning, instead of the school that is the best fit for the child. Data and observations from several cities indicate that children in foster care are not likely to use school choice opportunities—including charter schools, magnet schools, online schools, private schools and in-boundary schools.
For a choice system to be effective, that system must prioritize the children who have the greatest barriers facing them. This is especially true as the pandemic will cause many young people to fall behind academically and social-emotionally. In a new policy brief, Bellwether Education Partners identified key levers that will help children in foster care access school choice and begin to build more stable lives in schools that meet their academic and social-emotional needs.
Focus on information for families
Children in foster care by law have the right to attend their school of origin—where they were attending school prior to entering the foster care system—which has been a critical factor in ensuring stability in their lives. But assuming the school of origin is the best fit can inadvertently restrict children in foster care.
Navigating school choice options is complicated and, too often, the adults in a foster care student’s life don’t have the information they need to access systems of choice. In New York City, only 4% of youth in foster care are attending a charter school, compared to 10% of their peers. Localities should create resources, including comprehensive and accessible school choice guides, for the adults in a child in foster care’s life to understand the school options available to them.
Prioritize Access to Vital Data and Information for both educators and social workers
Families aren’t the only people missing critical information when it comes to youth in foster care. A lack of centralized data systems linking education with child welfare organizations prevents youth in foster care from being academically successful when moving schools. In Los Angeles, agencies are piloting and building systems to bridge data, but with just one staff person fielding requests, getting real-time information is nearly impossible. Collaboration across agencies—all who serve young people—should not be a barrier to supporting youth in foster care’s success.
Create flexibility in common lotteries
To attend a school of choice, families must apply by school lottery deadlines—deadlines that do not work for young people who enter foster care at any point and miss the opportunity to apply to schools of choice; and lotteries rarely place priorities for children in foster care. All schools, including charter schools, should be required to immediately enroll children in foster care—even if the application or enrollment deadline has passed. If a school has a waitlist, children in foster care should automatically move to the top of the waitlist.
Expand the definition of families
Sibling preference is one way that a child in foster care can receive priority for enrollment in a school that is at capacity. Yet, policies often do not consider children in foster care as siblings, like with biological or adopted siblings. This is limiting to how families are formed, and leave children in foster care with limited options. State laws should include foster siblings, including unrelated children in a single foster family, as members of any sibling preference category for charter school lotteries and waitlist policies.
Guarantee transportation to school
Despite federal requirements that states provide transportation for youth in foster care to remain in their school of origin, budgets, bureaucratic barriers and cross-jurisdictional confusion lead to poor implementation of transportation. In Colorado, which allocates $2.75 million for transportation to be used with local funds, just eight of the 64 counties utilized state dollars, leaving more than $2.7 million unused. In order to ensure that youth in foster care are able to access their school of origin, states should reduce burdens for local governments to receive state transportation funding that has already been set aside for youth in foster care.
For school choice to thrive, systems must make them work for the students who have the greatest barriers facing them. By focusing on the systems and information that foster care families need to succeed, more foster care families can access choice and the unique needs of students in foster care can be addressed.