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Ed. Dept. Issues Guidance on Access to Records of Students in Foster Care

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By guest blogger Lauren Camera

The U.S. Department of Education has ramped up its efforts to increase educational stability for children in the foster care system. In a three-pronged approach, the department Monday issued guidance about access to the education records of foster students, sent a letter to education authorities about the need for increased coordination, and launched a dedicated web page for foster students.

The guidance clarifies an amendment to the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (commonly known as FERPA) aimed at making it easier for caseworkers, child welfare agencies and tribal organizations responsible for the placement and care of children in the foster system to access the education records of those children.

FERPA is the federal law that protects the privacy of student education records and gives parents certain rights with respect to their children's education records. Under FERPA, a parent generally must provide a signed and dated written consent before a school discloses personally identifiable information from the student's education records. The amendment, officially titled the "Uninterrupted Scholars Act," provides authorized agencies with access to the records they need—in some cases without parental consent—to meet the early intervention or educational needs of the students.

President Barack Obama signed the amendment into law in January 2013, but a lack of coordination between state and local educational agencies and child welfare organizations has hampered its impact. Of the approximately 400,000 children in foster care, 260,000 are school aged, 5-18 years old, and their education experience is often disrupted by numerous moves.

"This guidance will help lessen the impact of these disruptions and help provide students in foster care with educational stability, by making their school records accessible to those in charge of their care," said U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a statement. "We also hope it will shine a light on the benefit of these students staying in their schools and within an education community that can support them through a difficult period."

The guidance is accompanied by a joint letter from the Education Department and the U.S. Department of Health Human Services to state school chiefs and child welfare directors that explains that the coordination mishaps are largely the fault of local education agencies, many of which wrongly assume the amendment applies only to state education and welfare agencies. The letter, penned by Deborah Delisle, assistant education secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education and Mark Greenberg, acting assistant secretary of the Administration of Children and Families at HHS, asks state education and welfare agencies to remind their local counterparts "of their obligations to collaborate and coordinate."

The Education Department also launched a new page on its web site dedicated to students in foster care with resources that emphasize the importance of coordination between education agencies and child welfare agencies in improving the educational outcomes for those students.

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