SACRAMENTO—With approximately 80,000 children, California has the nation’s largest foster-care population, according to the state’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Children in Foster Care. Californians should keep a close watch on Arizona, where the fate of the country’s first K-12 scholarship program for foster-care students is now in the hands of the state supreme court.
In 2006, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano signed the Displaced Pupils Choice Grant Program into law. Under the program any Arizona student placed in foster care at any time before graduating from high school or earning a GED is eligible for a scholarship worth up to $5,000 to attend a non-public school. Thanks to this program, more than 228 Arizona foster children are now in schools that are working for them—but not everyone is happy about that.
In January, 2007, the Arizona Education Association launched a legal attack against the program, which lets parents do what public schools across the country do every day—buy educational services from private schools. Every year public school districts in Arizona and nationwide send more than 100,000 students to private schools when they cannot provide the educational services those students need.
During opening arguments yesterday, the Arizona high court pressed opponents to explain why it’s okay for school districts to purchase private school services with public dollars but not okay for parents. Opponents demurred that school districts simply know better than parents. Hundreds of parents who rallied on the court steps disagreed, including Andrea Weck, whose daughter Lexie is using a scholarship to attend a specialized private school.
“Why do the teachers’ unions and other special interest groups want to stop Lexie’s growth?” asked Andrea. “They don’t object when public school officials make the same decisions for other children. All that parents want is the freedom to place our children in schools that meet their unique educational needs and help them to flourish as we know they can.” Imagine what a similar program would mean for California.
Last year a statewide Education Summit concluded, “Too often it is unclear who, if anyone, is responsible for ensuring the educational outcomes of children we take into our ‘charge’ when we bring them into our child welfare system.” More than one-third of foster youth on average experience five or more school changes. To promote stability and better ensure that foster students receive the services essential to their academic success, California could build on several existing policies:
#1 Enact a California K-12 Chafee Grant Program. Under the California Chafee Grant Program current and former foster-care youth are eligible for government grants up to $5,000 annually for career and technical training or college courses at public, private, or independent schools in or out of state. Let eligible K-12 foster-care students use just the state portion of their school’s revenue limit funding, around $4,000, to do the same. Their public schools would get to keep around $7,000 in remaining other state, local, and federal revenue.
#2 Level the Playing Field between Foster-Parents and School Districts. According to the U.S. Department of Education, California school districts use public dollars to send more than 13,500 students to private schools each year for the educational services they can’t provide. There is no good reason foster-parents shouldn’t be allowed to do the same for their children.
#3 Expand the Districts of Choice Program. Policy makers should reject the state education department’s flimsy recommendation to abolish the Districts of Choice program, which allows parents to send their children to any public school they wish regardless of where they can afford to live.
#4 Promote Foster-Parent Educational Savings Accounts. California’s 529 Plan, the ScholarShare College Savings Plan, could be expanded so parents of all income levels, relatives, and employers can make tax-exempt deposits for foster-children’s K-12 education and tutoring services. The state also makes grants averaging around $1,000 to low-income families participating in the California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids (CalWorks) program and encourages them to accrue savings for qualified expenditures including education and housing. The state could offer means-tested matches to help low- and middle-income foster parents do the same for their children.
#5 Let Foster-Care and Adoption Organizations Charter Schools. To meet the unique needs of foster-care students, non-profit organizations should be allowed to authorize charter schools independently of public school districts. The statewide cap on the number of charter schools should be repealed to ensure that sufficient charter schools can open in areas where the need is greatest.
Nationwide, the education of foster-care students is increasingly getting the serious, bi-partisan attention it deserves. California should be leading this critical public-policy debate—instead of being left in Arizona’s dust.
*Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., supplied two expert affidavits to the Maricopa County Superior Court as part of the legal defense of the Displaced Pupils Grant Program in 2007.