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Increased Federal Attention to the Need for Education Legislation Focusing on Foster Youth

f147b60d0fFoster children’s shockingly poor educational outcomes have been increasingly well-documented in recent years.1 The Fostering Connections Act of 20082 was a dramatic shift in federal law towards supporting the importance of school stability for children in foster care. That legislation focused generally on “promoting permanent families for them through relative guardianship and adoption and improving education and health care.”3 Although one hallmark of that legislation is extending federal support for foster care from age 18 to 21, it also contained important provisions related to education. Specifically, it required that, in order to receive federal reimbursement for their care, states ensure that foster children attend school. It also began to address the need for stability by requiring that child welfare agencies collaborate with education agencies to keep youth in the same school despite a change in living placement, when remaining in that school is in the child’s best interest. It also required child welfare agencies to ensure that foster children who change schools are promptly transferred to a new school, with school records.

Without mandates on the educational agencies, however, existing law too often falls short of its goals to improve educational outcomes for foster youth. Over the past few years, advocates, legislators, and stakeholders have discussed how to craft a solution and place appropriate responsibilities on the schools and ensure that each agency collaborates to support the educational needs of children in foster care.

In a major step forward, “Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013,” introduced in the Senate, has an entire section devoted to the “Educational Stability of Children in Foster Care.” The core elements, which come with no cost attached, are the right to remain in the school of origin any time a foster child changes schools and the right to immediate enrollment and record transfer when a foster child changes schools. These may sound like abstract rights, but they would make a real difference for individual foster children. Currently, a foster child may not be able to attend school until records are transferred. This can pose real challenges, especially for children who change schools multiple times, who may already be falling behind, and who may be hesitant to start school in a new environment. A few days out of school can turn into weeks, making it more difficult to participate in extracurricular activities and more challenging to catch up academically, as well as increasing a child’s disengagement from school. An entitlement to immediate enrollment and immediate record transfer would represent a major step toward addressing this problem.

Other states already have laws on the books that include these same core elements. California’s AB490 is perhaps the best example of legislation that has provided real educational benefits to foster youth.4 It contains the same elements described above, as well as others, and was informative in the development of the foster youth-focused section of the Senate Act. In addition to the above elements, AB490 created liaison positions to specifically help connect the education and foster care agencies and ensure foster children have their needs met and rights respected. The new proposed federal legislation includes a school-based point of contact to help implement the Act’s guarantees.

The critical need for these protections has been supported by a number of national organizations that compose the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, a group facilitated by the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education, a collaboration between the American Bar Association Center on Children and the Law, Education Law Center, and Juvenile Law Center. 5

Jessica Feierman, an attorney at Juvenile Law Center, co-chair of the policy subcommittee of the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, and staff member for the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education, described the potential impact of this legislation on foster children’s lives: “Frequently, when youth change schools, they not only move away from teachers and friends, they also move away from families, neighbors, and everything familiar.  A federal law allowing youth to stay in the same school even when they move to a new foster placement would make a huge difference.  It would provide youth with much-needed stability, and help them succeed in school.”

The provisions are part of the larger Strengthening America’s Schools Act of 2013, and it is very unlikely that legislation will move forward by the end of this congressional session. The bill is sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. Having such a prominent Senator put foster youth’s educational needs on the agenda is itself a promising development. It is clear the groundwork is being laid for federal attention to the protections necessary to truly improve foster children’s educational outcomes.


  1. See www.foster-ed.org/research.html.
  2. H.R. 6893/P.L. 110-351, signed into law on October 7, 2008.
  3. See more at: http://www.childrensdefense.org/policy-priorities/child-welfare/fostering-connections/
  4. For much more, see www.youthlaw.org/events/trainings/ab_490_ensuring_educational_rights_for_foster_youth/
  5. www.fostercareandeducation.org
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