California Embraces Comprehensive School Finance Reform and Protects Educational Services for Foster Youth
By Maya Cooper
California’s legislature passed the new state budget on June 14, 2013. The budget language includes several provisions that hold promise for the thousands of school-age foster children in California. It changes the way education is funded, shifting greater control to individual counties and districts. Of even more direct impact, it protected $15 million for foster youth services, which provide a wide range of supports to individual foster children across the state.
The Local Control Funding Formula
Included in this year’s budget was a new school finance funding formula, also known as the local control funding formula (LCFF). By moving to the LCFF, Governor Jerry Brown thinks the new finance system will provide for maximum flexibility and local control for counties and districts. Governor Brown’s Budget Summary released in January 2013 claimed that the new budget will not only increase funding for districts but also allow “targeted investments in districts serving students with the greatest level of needs – recognizing that [the new state budget] will help the state reduce disparities, maximize student achievement, and strengthening the foundation for sustainable growth.”1
Under California’s LCFF, a specific dollar amount is allocated to educate each student and then additional funding is given to educate students with identified risk-factors or characteristics that may impact their learning. The LCFF is viewed by some as a key step towards redefining education reform through financial measures. However, its opponents argue that the LCFF will permanently eliminate the current state requirements that go with the categorical programs that represent more than approximately $7.4 billion in school funding. School districts in California funded in two different ways, “through unrestricted general purpose funds that may be spent for any educational purpose” and through “restricted funds—called categorical—earmarked for special programs and purposes.”2 Categorical funds are intended for specific programs, such as gifted and talented programs, pupil transportation, special education and professional development for teachers.3
In a time of tight state resources, other states with similar funding challenges are looking to move towards a weighted student formula system. Hawaii is currently the only other state that uses a pure weighted pupil formula (called a “WPF”). Hawaii is also the only other state with a single, statewide school district and whose residents’ property taxes do not fund public education. Hawaii’s State Board of Education adopted the WPF in the 2006-07 school year, which dictates that a large amount of state funding is distributed to public schools based on student’s needs.4 Their system also has a specific dollar amount allocated per student enrolled in school, coupled with additional funding for students with “special needs that impact their learning . . . Some characteristics that are considered weighted include economically disadvantaged students, English Language Learners; and transience due to movements of students and their families.”5 Other states across the country are looking to following a similar WPF, including South Carolina. In recent years, a few states have implemented hybrid formulas that use weights to allocate a portion of overall funding to districts based on student’s needs, but distribute the huge majority school funds without a complex weighted formula.
In California, the LCFF is going to be phased in over five to seven years. Every year counties and districts will receive a percentage of the difference between what they are currently receiving and what the LCFF says they should receive. Once the LCFF is fully implemented, the formula’s structure will provide districts with a “base” amount of money per pupil and a supplemental amount for students who are English Learners (EL), low-income (free and reduced price meal) or in foster care. The grant will not be duplicated if students are eligible in more than one category; pupils who fall into more than one of these three categories will only be counted once.
California’s Foster Youth Services Program
In the original budget proposal released in January 2013, California’s Foster Youth Services (FYS) programs were included in the removal of 47 of 62 “categorical” education programs under the LCFF. The proposed elimination of the FYS programs under the LCFF would have allowed for the approximately $15 million currently targeted for foster youth supports and services to be distributed to California’s County Offices of Education to use as they choose. The broader intention of removing categorical programs was to give local education agencies increased control over how to spend their funds while holding them accountable, in theory, for the academic progress of these educationally underserved groups.
FYS programs have operated primarily at the local level through the county offices of education to better coordinate with the other county agencies serving foster children. As a categorical program, FYS has included requirements that the funds be spent on children with open dependency cases who live in a licensed foster home, a residence defined as a licensed foster family home, a certified family agency home, a court-specified home, or a licensed care institution (group home). FYS staff have worked with current and former foster youth as well as school, juvenile detention, child welfare, probation department, and community services agency staff to help foster youth succeed in school. Local FYS programs have had broad discretion as to what types of services and supports they provide. Services typically include tutoring, mentoring, educational advocacy, data sharing, coordination, transition planning, and much more. A 2010 Legislative Report6 written by the California Department of Education to the Governor and Legislature summarized the goals common to all FYS programs:
- Identify the educational, physical, social, and emotional needs of foster youth.
- Determine gaps in the provision of educational and social support services and provide those services, either directly or through referral to collaborative partners.
- Identify inadequacies in the completion and timely transfer of health and education records to facilitate appropriate and stable care and educational placement.
- Improve student academic achievement and reduce student truancy, dropout rates, and delinquent behavior.
- Provide advocacy to promote the best interests of foster youth throughout California.7
Foster youth have emphasized the importance of these services. Marinda King, a high school senior and foster youth, pointed out that one of the FYS coordinators at the Mt. Diablo Unified School District, Vivica Taylor, helped connect her with critical counseling services and guidance to ensure that she would meet her high school graduation requirements.8 Alexis Soria9, a graduating senior from the same district, said that she would “not be graduating without the help of FYS.” Soria credits Taylor with providing her the necessary “motivation that she lacked” in order to complete school and “considers [Taylor] a mentor, like a mom” that many foster youth are missing.
During the budget negotiations, foster youth supporters organized a series of advocacy efforts and hearings to help “save” the FYS program from becoming an eliminated categorical program under the LCFF. The major question for FYS advocates during the campaign became – “if FYS is dissolved as a categorical program, what incentives will be in place for counties and districts to serve this fragile student population?” Few school districts have the internal mechanisms to identify which of their students are in foster care. This would make it nearly impossible to hold districts accountable for the performance of these students and districts would be unable to provide these students with the supports they may require. California’s county child welfare agencies would find it much more expensive to comply with federal laws such as the Fostering Connections Act of 2008 (Public Law 110-351)10 requiring child welfare agencies to monitor and track the educational progress of foster children. FYS programs currently provide assistance to child welfare agencies to minimize changes in school placement and facilitate the prompt transfer of educational records between educational institutions when placement changes are necessary. The counties would have to continue doing this, by federal mandate, even without dedicated FYS funding.
Furthermore, foster children face a unique set of educational challenges. Nationwide, their educational outcomes are significantly worse than those of other similarly economically disadvantaged students. On average, children in foster care may change schools two to three times per year.11 One study indicated that more than two thirds of children in foster care changed schools shortly after initial placement into foster care. Other studies show that:
- Twice as many foster children repeat a grade12
- 75% of foster children are behind grade level13
- 67% of foster children are suspended from school, and 17% are expelled, more than three times the general student population14
- Foster youth are twice as likely to drop out of school as their peers15
- Only 1.8% of former foster youth complete a bachelor’s degree, compared to 24% of the general population.16
At Greater Risk, California Foster Youth and the Path from High School to College, recently released by the Stuart Foundation, found that even when compared with other economically disadvantaged students, “foster youth are less likely to complete high school, enroll in community college, or remain in community college for a second year.”17 The Report also reveals heartbreaking statistics about the educational outcomes of the California foster youth studied:
- 45% of foster youth completed high school (compared with 53% of similarly disadvantaged youth not in foster care)
- 43% of foster youth enrolled in community college (compared with 46% of similarly disadvantaged youth not in foster care)
- 41% of the foster youth who enrolled in college remained enrolled in community college for a second year (compared with 48% of similarly disadvantaged youth not in foster care).18
Overcoming these unique educational challenges requires specialized supports different from those provided to disadvantaged children generally. As articulated by one foster youth, Barbara “Cookeey” Ropati19, foster children are “bounced from house to house and school to school . . . they often don’t get the [school] credits that they need.” For Ropati, FYS staff provided enormous support during her academic career. As she described it, having the “extra support system [of FYS] helps us feel like we are not alone. . . FYS is our village; it takes a village to raise a child.”
A Youth Perspective on Foster Youth Services (FYS) Programs
My name is Sheena Cornejo. I entered the foster care system when I was fourteen years old. Prior to entering the system, I had missed my 8th and 9th grade school years due to truancy and the lifestyle that my biological mother was living. There wasn’t anyone keeping track of my attendance and it wasn’t my choice to miss school. I loved school and was a good student from what I remember about being in elementary school I was very bright and was placed in the GATE program where a higher education level was provided to me. I received many certificates and awards for my academic achievements. However, that all changed when I entered the foster care system.
I went from foster home to foster home switching from school to school. I felt very isolated from my family, friends, and peers and I no longer had the confidence that being a good student gave me. I eventually landed in a group home and while I was living in the group home I was required to attend an onsite school rather than a mainstream high school. I was required to have an IEP and I was labeled ED (emotionally disturbed). The group home I was in was a level 14 and from that moment on my educational needs was no longer being met. I stopped caring about school and never thought I was going to get my love for learning back.
I was in the group home for 6 months until I was transferred to another placement and another school. I moved to Orland, and attended Orland High School. Because I was coming out of a high level group home and my IEP said I was emotionally disturbed, I was placed in an SED class with children who had developmental disabilities. I didn’t believe I had a disability and I was struggling with accepting my current circumstance and wondering why was I in a classroom with children who were autistic and who were diagnosed with mental retardation when I was fully capable of learning. There was no one to advocate for me, to get a better education until I met Robin Smith, who was the Foster Youth Services coordinator for the Glenn County Office of Education.
Robin attended my IEP with me and advocated for me to be placed in classes that were more challenging and appropriate for my academic level. I was able to be mainstreamed to regular classes and in my first semester of regular classes my GPA was a 3.71 and I began to get excited about learning again. The FYS program was responsible for gathering all my transcripts from the various schools which I attended, and they helped advocate for the partial credits I earned and made it possible for me to graduate from high school on time. The FYS program stayed with me throughout my high school career and helped me through the process of post-secondary education so I could pursue my dream of being a nurse. The FYS program helped me to succeed in school and better my life. If it wasn’t for the advocacy from the FYS program and Robin, I don’t believe I would have been the first person in my family to graduate from high school. Not only did I graduate high school, but the confidence I gained from having someone believe in me, inspired me to pursue my college education and I am just weeks away from graduating from Butte College with an Associate’s Degree in Nursing. Again, I can truly say this would have not been possible if it wasn’t for the Foster Youth Services Program.
In closing, I would like you to remember my story and know that there are so many other foster youth that share the same story. Without programs like Foster Youth Services, I feel that many bright and talented foster youth of California will fall through the cracks. I know I am not going to repeat the family dynamics that were handed down to me because my children will have a college graduate as their mother and someone they can be proud of who values education. Foster Youth Services Programs are making a difference for foster youth like me and I encourage you to support programs like FYS when you consider the upcoming budget cuts and make sure these programs, which change the lives of people like me, do not get cut.
This letter was written by Sheena Cornejo to Governor Jerry Brown. NCYL received the letter from the California Youth Connection.
Not only have California’s existing FYS programs accomplished their objectives to support foster youth’s unique needs and improve the educational outcomes of foster children, they have also served as a model nationwide. As the 2012 Legislative Report20 written by the California Department of Education found, “While many foster youth are at increased risk of failure in school, the services provided through the FYS Programs offset this risk and increase foster youth opportunities for success in school. Evidence of the positive impact of these services is found in the outcome data on academic gains, expulsion rates, and attendance rates . . . . In addition, these programs support foster youth in experiencing a sense of school ‘connectedness,’ completing their education programs, and making a smooth transition to adult life.”21 The report further notes that responsible leadership, “requires California to meet its obligation to care for and nurture all foster children by investing the resources necessary to promote their success. Failure to do so will result in greater fiscal and human costs in terms of increased poverty, unemployment, homelessness, incarceration, and welfare dependency.”22 For example, studies estimate that approximately 17 percent of foster youth nationally have been expelled at least once. A study of 2,645 students served by California’s FYS core district programs found that only 0.69 percent faced expulsion.23
A Major Victory for Foster Youth
In a dramatic move by the state legislature, FYS was preserved as a categorical program when the final budget passed.24 The preservation of FYS reflects the Administration, Senate, and Assembly’s dedication to ensure that students in foster care receive the educational supports and services they need in order to succeed in school. The budget language negotiated by the State Assembly and Senate on June 14 also included a number of new, exciting provisions aimed at improving the educational outcomes for students in foster care.
In addition to retaining the FYS program, California will become the first state to include foster youth in their education accountability framework. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires states to evaluate schools and school districts based on the progress of different subgroups of children, including students with disabilities, students of color, and students who primarily speak a language other than English. This year’s budget bill has added foster youth as a subgroup in the Academic Performance Index (API) for California. This means that for the first time school districts will be statutorily required to track the academic performance of foster youth when a school district has 15 or more foster youth. This subgroup size for foster youth of 15 is below the size of 30 for other subgroups. This diminished subgroup size accurately reflects the often small numbers of foster youth in many school districts, and will help to reduce the number of foster youth who would be invisible to the accountability system. The budget language also requires school districts to include a section specific to foster children in their local control and accountability plan. This should help ensure school districts meet the educational needs of students in foster care.
Finally, the budget included a new provision requiring data sharing between state agencies. The California Department of Social Services will be required to share information with the California Department of Education to help identify which students are in foster care. These provisions also require the California Department of Education to share this information with local school districts and county offices of education on a weekly basis.
As Lily Dorman Colby, foster care alumna, Yale graduate, and current law student put it, “this legislation will help thousands of foster youth achieve their full potential.”25
Maya Cooper is an attorney and policy manager at the National Center for Youth Law’s FosterEd Initiative.
- 2013-14 Governor’s Budget Summary to the California Legislature, page 16, available at www.dof.ca.gov/documents/FullBudgetSummary_web2013.pdf.
- Margaret Weston, California’s New Funding Flexibility, May 2011, at 7, available at www.ppic.org/content/pubs/report/R_511MWR.pdf
- See A Quick Glance at School Finance: A 50 State Survey of School Finance Policies, Hawaii, http://education.unlv.edu/centers/ceps/study/documents/Hawaii.pdf.
- 2010 Report to the Legislature and the Governor, for the Foster Youth Services Program, Foster Youth Services Program, Counseling, Student Support, and Service-Learning Office California Department of Education, dated February 15, 2010, www.cde.ca.gov/ls/pf/fy/legreport2010.asp.
- Telephone Interview with Marinda King, high school senior, Concord, CA (May 9, 2013).
- Telephone Interview with Alexis Soria, high school senior, Concord, CA (May 9, 2013).
- H.R. 6893/P.L. 110-351.
- See National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, Education is the Lifeline for Youth in Foster Care, October 2011.
- National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, Educational Outcomes for Children and Youth in Foster and Out-of-Home Care, December 2008.
- Honoring Emancipated Youth, Barriers Facing Foster Care Youth: National and Local Statistics about Emancipating Foster Youth, 2005.
- National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, Educational Outcomes for Children and Youth in Foster and Out-of-Home Care, December 2008.
- The Stuart Foundation, At Greater Risk: California Foster Youth and the Path from High School to College, March 2013.
- Telephone Interview with Barbara “Cookeey” Ropapi, high school senior, in Oakland, CA (April 26, 2013).
- 2012 Report to the Legislature and the Governor, for the Foster Youth Services Program, Foster Youth Services Program, Counseling, Student Support, and Service-Learning Office California Department of Education, dated October 2012, www.cde.ca.gov/ls/pf/fy/lrlegreport2012.asp.
- At the time this article was written, the state budget had passed both the state Senate and Assembly and was awaiting the Governor’s approval and signature. The budget is expected to be signed into law by the Governor on June 30, 2013.
- Interview with Lily Dorman Colby, UC Berkeley law student, Oakland, CA (June 15, 2013).