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How Does the Every Student Succeeds Act Handle Foster Children?

UPDATED

The Every Student Succeeds Act wasn't just about accountability, testing, and standards. It also made some big changes for a long overlooked group of students: those in foster care.

We've already told you that the law calls for states to break out student-outcome data (i.e. test scores and graduation rates) for foster care students. That's a big deal.

But it also seeks to help keep foster care students in their "school of origin" if the district and child welfare agencies think it will benefit the student.

The rationale is basically this: Foster care students are coping with a lot very significant change and turmoil, so if it would help them out academically—not to mention economically and socially—to have some stability in their school situation, they should get it.

This brings up a couple of big questions:

First off, what exactly is a school of origin? The law doesn't define this, so it seems to be up to states and districts to figure out exactly what ESSA means here.

Second, if there's an additional cost for transportation, who pays it?

Here's what the law says: The district should pay the cost if, a) the district is going to be reimbursed by a child welfare agency, b) if the district is okay with paying the whole transportation cost alone, or c) if the district and the child welfare agency are going to split the cost.

It's not completely clear from the law, though, what is supposed to happen, if a district doesn't agree to cover transportation costs, or if the child welfare agency isn't willing to cover them, or if the two can't figure out a good way to split the costs.

And, naturally, different advocacy organizations have different interpretations.

For instance, the Council of the Great City Schools argued in comments submitted on ESSA back in January that unless districts decide to step up on their own, or comes to an accord with child welfare agencies, they aren't on the hook for transportation costs. "Without such an agreement, the [district] does not have transportation responsibilities beyond what is required under state and local law and [district] policies," the group wrote back in January.

But a group of child welfare advocates sees the issue somewhat differently. They want the department to make it clear—preferably in regulations—that school districts need to look beyond just a single child welfare agency in trying to find partners who might share the funding load, according to ESSA comments submitted by more than 50 organizations back in January, including the Children's Defense Fund, the NAACP, and the Juvenile Law Center."

What's more, they want regulations to "clarify that once a best interest determination is made by a child welfare agency or court after consultation with [districts], that [districts] are obligated to ensure school stability or immediate enrollment for the student," the groups wrote. In other words, they really want child welfare agencies to put their heads down and make this work. 

It seems unlikely that the Education Department is going to clear up those issues through regulation. So far, the department has announced that it plans to regulate on accountability, supplement-not-supplant, and the Innovative Assessment Pilot. (Testing was also on the agency's to-do list, but a committee of negotiators took care of the bulk of that work already.) But the department could decide to clear it up through guidance—so stay tuned.

In fact a group of influential senators, including Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash. and Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr.  and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Matthews Burwell last week, asking them to provide guidance on this issue. Specifically, the senators want the departments to help school districts and child welfare organizations collaborate to meet the needs of kids in foster care by providing technical assistance and shining a spotlight on communities where the collaboration has been successful. You can read the letter here

For more on how ESSA handles children in foster care, check out this great explainer from AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

And if you're just interested in learning more about foster kids in general, check out this video on kids transitioning out of foster care. 


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