Bridging the Education Gap for Children in Foster Care

By: Rachel Johnson

Children in foster care are regarded by many as one of the nation’s most vulnerable populations.  Most of the children in foster care experience chronic medical, emotional, and developmental problems as a result of past abuse or abandonment.  These problems can produce many hurdles for children in foster care to overcome.  One of the largest hurdles is getting an education.

According to an ongoing study at the University of Chicago tracking outcomes for children in foster care, approximately fifty percent of children in the system did not graduate from high school.  This is equal to approximately 200,000 drop outs for children in foster care (out of the approximately 400,000 in foster care), which is comparatively higher than the national average of seven percent.

This failure to complete high school, with either a diploma or GED, can lead to many unintended costs for local communities.  For example, a recent study by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative showed that on average communities pay $300,000 in social costs for children who leave foster care.  Much of this figure is reflective of lost wages to communities and public assistance benefits paid out to those former foster youth without gainful employment, which could result in as much as $8 billion every year.  Therefore, if children in foster care continue to fail to complete high school, they will have fewer chances to secure gainful employment, and will leave communities with ever-growing financial burdens.

In order to combat these high social costs, the proper support structures for the education of children in foster care must be established.  The year 2013 proved to be an important one in establishing the supports needed to ensure success with the passage of the Uninterrupted Scholars Act (USA).  The USA was signed into law one year ago on January 14th.  The USA’s purpose is to amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

FERPA was enacted in 1974 and provides two very important functions.  First, FERPA ensures that student education records are kept private.  Second, FERPA provides students and parents the right to inspect and review records maintained by schools as well as challenge records they believe to be inaccurate.  FERPA’s parental right to review can be linked to student achievement as studies show that children whose parent(s) are more involved in their education are more likely to succeed in school.  However, under FERPA, this benefit was limited to those children with a traditional parental role.  Although completely unintended, this was a consequence of FERPA and what USA aimed to solve.

The USA solves this unintended consequence by allowing welfare agencies in charge of children in foster care to take on the role of the parent with regards to a child’s education.  This change allows child welfare agencies access to educational records as the parties responsible for children in foster care.  This change in law will inadvertently allow welfare agencies to play a larger role in the education of foster care children, thereby improving educational outcomes for these children.

Additionally, these unique needs of, and difficulties experienced by, children in foster care mentioned earlier, can manifest themselves uniquely in the education context.  Schools typically label children with such difficulties as having some sort of learning disability.  When a school labels a child as having a learning disability, that child is entitled to an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  An IEP also provides parents with a right to be present and heard when the IEP is established for a child.  However, if the welfare agency acting as a parent for a child in foster care does not have access to educational records under FERPA, they would not be able to participate in such a meeting.  An IEP is an essential tool for students with disabilities and the use of them has proven beneficial to educational outcomes for all students.  The USA will also help cure this additional FERPA problem by increasing access welfare agencies have to an IEP to help children in foster care succeed in school.

It is too early to tell whether the Uninterrupted Scholars Act (USA) will influence graduation rates among children in foster care.  However, the existence of the USA is the biggest achievement in improving educational outcomes for children in foster care the United States has seen in recent years.  The foster care system will never cease to exist in the United States; therefore the state is required to do the best possible job to care for the educational needs of those children in the system.  With new research on the negative social costs the United States incurs every year when children in foster care do not succeed, building up systems that support the educational successes of foster care children is a national issue that deserves more attention.

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