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States Advised on ESSA and Foster Children, Stakeholder Collaboration

U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King, Jr., wants to make sure states are talking to as many groups as possible—and seeking their input "early and often"—as they develop new accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act. 

Some states are already knee-deep in this work, while others are just getting started. The Education Department sent a letter to chief state school officers Thursday, outlining what good outreach looks like. (Scroll down for more on the letter.)

King stressed on a press call with reporters that teachers and principals should be given time to weigh in on ESSA plans. And he said that civil rights organizations and other groups representing disadvantaged kids have, in the past, been given short shrift when it comes to stakeholder engagement. He's hoping states will ensure that "historical problem is not repeated" in ESSA implementation.

What's more, ESSA seeks to shine a spotlight on a long overlooked population—foster children—and make sure that school districts and child-welfare agencies team up to give them the attention and academic stability they need. That's sparked a host of tricky implementation questions, including who decides which school is best for foster kids, and who covers transportation costs if they end up at a school far from their foster home. 

So, in addition to King's letter to state chiefs, the department and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Thursay put out some guidance to help school districts, states, and others put their heads together to puzzle through those issues.

One point worth noting up high about this new foster-care guidance: School district advocates were really unhappy with the way the Education Department had previously sought to handle a technical, but touchy issue: transportation costs for foster kids who stay in their original school. The foster care guidance goes in a new direction on that. (More below.)

King said he hopes ESSA will finally give foster care students the attention they deserve.

"For far too long we as a country have failed so many of our most vulnerable students," King said. "We cannot allow the students who need our attention the most to be treated unfairly under the law."

ESSA and Foster Kids

So what are these changes in ESSA for foster-care students? ESSA calls for states to break out test data for foster them separately, just like they do now for racial minorities, English-learners, and students in special education. The guidance recommends using HHS's current definition of a foster-care student to meet this requirement. 

The law also says that, when it's possible and in the best interest of the student, children in foster care should remain in their "school of origin" instead of transferring to a new school when they enter foster care or change placements. The idea is to minimize academic disruption and give foster children some stability at what can be a very chaotic time in their lives. That change is supposed to go into effect in December, which is pretty soon for school districts.

ESSA calls for school districts and child-welfare agencies to team up to figure out when it's in the best interest of a particular child to stay at the current school. The guidance, which is not legally binding, makes a recommendation here: If the district and the child-welfare agency disagree on what's in the best interest of the child, the child-welfare agency should have final say.

And the guidance also has recommendations on another, very closely watched issue: Should school districts, or child welfare agencies pick up the tab for added transportation costs for foster kids who stay in their original school?

It's worth noting that ESSA itself is kind of foggy on this point. The law says that welfare agencies and districts should work together to figure out how to cover transportation costs—either the district or the child welfare agency can pick up the full tab, or they can split it. But the law doesn't say who has ultimate responsibility if the district and the agency can't agree on who pays what.

In its proposed accountability regulations, the department said basically, that if the two agencies can't agree, school districts should be on the hook for covering transportation costs. The guidance, though, recommends that states take responsibility for settling any disputes between child welfare agencies and districts. And it suggests that states come up with a plan for handling any clashes between districts and local child-welfare agencies. (It's not clear where this will end up. King said the proposed regulations and the guidance should be viewed as on separately.) 

But in general, the department is hoping there won't be major disagreements. The guidance recommends that everyone work together up front to make sure kids in foster care get the help they need.

"Interagency collaboration is not easy," said Kathleen McNaught, the assistant staff director of Child Welfare at the American Bar Association's Center on Children and the Law, who was also on the department's press call.  But she said, "What we've learned from these years of work is that students in foster care truly benefit when child welfare agencies all work together to support their educational needs."

More on ESSA Outreach

In his letter to chiefs, King stressed the importance of "genuine" engagement of stakeholders when creating their ESSA plans.

Among other things, King lists the various groups that states should bring into the ESSA engagement process, from state lawmakers and mayors to parents, principals and others from diverse geographical, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds. The secretary also stressed that states must collect ESSA input by holding meetings in different parts of the state, at different times of day, and by fostering "broad participation," such as encouraging representatives at the meeting to share views from those not present.

And King also noted that states should not simply flick a switch and stop gathering input once a certain stage of their ESSA planning is reached.

"Engagement does not end when States and districts move from the initial input phase into the policy development stage of the process," King wrote.

King is a fan of recent "Stakeholder Engagement" guidance crafted by the Council of Chief State School Officers and a whole host of organizations representing parents, teachers, the civil rights community, and more.

What's Next on ESSA?

Both of these pieces of guidance came hours before King was to testify before the House education committee on ESSA implementation. Republicans in Congress haven't been too thrilled with the department's ESSA stewardship so far, so this hearing looked to be interesting. (More in these Q&A's with ESSA architects Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., and Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.) Democrats, meanwhile, including those representing Asian American, Black, and Hispanic districts, have urged the department to stand their ground on a sticky spending issue, supplement-not-supplant

The department will release more guidance in coming weeks and months on a whole bunch of ESSA-related issues, including homeless children,  early learners, homeless students, English- language learners, training and preparing highly qualified teachers and principals, and the new Student Support and Academic Enrichment program (aka the giant block grant in ESSA). 

Andrew Ujifusa contributed to this post.  


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