How many fourth-grade boys look forward to returning to school after summer vacation?
I know one. He was excited because last September, for the first time, he was going back to the same school he attended the previous school year. He finally had a forever family — and now he had educational continuity.
He was like many students in foster care, whose multiple moves with unstable parents and subsequent transfers among foster families have disrupted their school lives and added to their trauma. It’s no surprise that these students are more likely to need special education services, or to be truant, or to drop out.
As a state, we must do more to meet the educational needs of children in foster care and state care, just as we should help local school districts whose budgets are strained by the unanticipated special education expenses and the transportation costs associated with them.
At the end of the 2017-18 school year, there were approximately 6,800 school-age children in foster care and state care. That’s a 20 percent increase since 2012, partially driven by the state’s ongoing opioid crisis. According to state child welfare officials, 45 to 50 percent of these students require individualized education plans, increasing their education costs significantly.
School districts do not have to report all the costs associated with educating our foster children, but the Town of Greenfield shared its data. With 1,700 students and a $20 million school budget, more than $765,000 in educational costs and $219,000 in transportation costs are attributable to students in foster care or state care placed in the Greenfield school district from elsewhere. Like other low-income cities, Greenfield has a concentration of group foster care facilities, with students who are placed there by the state, but whose educational expenses must be borne by local taxpayers. This is not fair.
Lawmakers hope to unveil a new funding formula for local education in the coming weeks. That presents a chance to address this problem. One thought has been to change the formula to help school districts pay for these children. Formulas, however, are based on fixed counts of students in a district at a given time, while children in foster care are likely to move during the school year. That means one school district has to chase money from another.
The better way forward is for the Commonwealth to pay school districts for the full cost of educating these students, thereby eliminating the money chase. Legislators should make this change part of their educational funding bill.
We should also expand training for local education officials and staff at the Department of Children and Families to help them navigate the complex web of federal and state requirements guiding educational decisions affecting these kids. Further, implementation of an “electronic backpack program,” which will provide digital copies of a student’s academic records and specialized education plans, can ensure teachers have all of the necessary information to meet students’ academic needs as soon as they knock on the schoolhouse door.
State government is financially better able than local school districts to help our children in foster care. Certainly we all pay a high social price for our current fragmented system. The National Foster Youth Institute estimates the high school dropout rate for children in foster care is approximately three times higher than that of their peers. This has long-term consequences, as students who drop out of high school are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested in their lifetime, and more likely to rely on social service programs, according to the National Dropout Prevention Center.
In situations where the state must separate children from their families, it should also take responsibility for the ultimate success of those kids. To do right by them, we must help them overcome the myriad challenges they face. If we do not provide these students with a strong academic foundation, it is not just a failure of governance, it is a moral failure of government. We must not let these vulnerable, but fully capable, children fall through the cracks. Now is the time for the Commonwealth to step up to support the educational success of these students.
Suzanne M. Bump is the Massachusetts state auditor.