By Daniel Heimpel
As the country braces itself for election season's pitched partisanship, a group of federal lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have found common ground on critical legislation that promises to streamline information exchange between education and foster care.
The Access to Papers Leads to Uninterrupted Scholars Act (A+ Act), introduced today by U.S. Reps. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), Tom Marino (R-Pa.) and Jim McDermott (D --Wash.), would eliminate longstanding tension between the protection of personal student records and federal mandates on public foster care agencies. The aim: to help ensure educational stability and success for foster youth.
For experts, advocates and administrators, the new legislation is an opportunity to change the way foster care and education work together towards the shared goal of improving educational outcomes for foster youth. Further, the A+ Act would allow for inter-agency data sharing, which experts agree would increase the chance of successful interventions to improve the dismaying educational outcomes students in foster care face.
A comprehensive fact sheet on educational outcomes for foster youth, compiled by the National Workgroup on Foster Care and Education, provides a clear picture of just how poorly these students perform compared to their peers. About half of students in foster care completed high school by age 18, compared with 70 percent of the general population, according to a review of multiple studies. And research shows college completion rates for foster youth range anywhere from one to nine percent, far lower than the census estimate of 28 percent of people in the general population who hard earned at least a four-year degree by age 25.
"When are we going to quit talking about stats and start implementing the solutions that put our [foster] kids on par with their peers," says Mary Cagle, the Director of Children's Legal Services for Florida's Department of Children and Families.
It was only two months ago that Cagle had an opportunity to make the case for doing just that. During a roundtable discussion organized by members of the recently launched Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth in Miami-Dade County on March, 31st, she argued for amending the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to allow child welfare administrations easier access to educational records.
"I know we are here to talk about all of the positive things we are doing in the foster care system and share best practices," Cagle said while seated alongside leaders from Florida's child-serving agencies and Congressional Caucus Members Karen Bass, Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) and Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.). "But I really asked to be put on the agenda because you have the federal laws and there is a conflict really between FERPA and the Social Security Act."
FERPA requires parental consent before any release of educational records and has strict protocols on when that information can be shared. On the flip side, you have Title IV-E of the Social Security Act, which dictates the responsibilities of foster care.
In 2008, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act stiffened mandates on child welfare administrations to ensure, whenever possible, foster youth are not bumped from school to school as they bounce from home to home, and that -- if a move is in the best interest of the child -- his or her records are transferred in a timely manner.
As foster care agencies across the country tried to live up to the law's mandates, they kept bumping up against FERPA, which compels schools and school districts to jump through time-consuming hoops before releasing data critical to social workers.
"Education is one of the biggest indicators for the happiness of our kids, so we really want the federal government to take a look at the tension in this law," Cagle said during the Florida meeting.
Gesturing toward the binders sitting in front of each of the assembled Members of Congress, she added, "you will see there is a draft of legislation and it is so simple, so easy and so clear, all it does is put the child welfare agency into FERPA as one of the exceptions they already have."
Rep. Hastings then interjected, saying, "Let's file it when we go back," igniting a round of applause in the crowded room.
"That would be " Cagle started. "You all will have changed the world for us, let me tell you."
Beyond the delays to the practical information that can inform casework and improve children's lives, the robust data sharing that fuels deep, policy-changing research is also often slowed down, said Teri Kook, Child Welfare Director or the California-based Stuart Foundation, which has funded numerous projects and research focusing on the intersection of foster care and education. The Foundation is currently supporting a huge data match between California's Department of Social Services and the Department of Education, which will reveal yet-unknown nuances in how students in foster care are faring.
Kook said that FERPA has delayed the process by 18 months. "If FERPA were changed we would have the data in our hands and would be using it to improve the situation on the ground for students and their families," she said.
Cheryl Smithgall, a research fellow at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, has conducted some of the most widely disseminated and detailed research on the education of foster children and other at-risk youth. Under FERPA, records can be released to researchers studying ways to improve instruction, administration of student aid or predictive tests. The A+ Act would expand the research exception to, "child welfare agencies for the purposes of assessing policies and practices intended to improve educational outcomes for students in foster care."
Until now, researchers have had to "work around" FERPA by either tailoring their requests to the educational exceptions laid out in the law, or by having social workers manually input data they collect into separate data sets.
"The change in this language in FERPA is essential in being able to develop the right interventions," Smithgall said.
In the two months since the Florida event, the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth has been hard at work drafting the A+ Act that -- if passed -- will resolve the tension between FERPA and the Social Security Act highlighted in Cagle's plea.
Rep. Bass said that the Caucus moved so quickly on this legislation because Cagle's remarks provided a "specific solution."
"This was an issue waiting to be resolved," Bass said. "The thought had already been put in, all we did was take advantage of the thinking and the work that was in place. I think congressional members are always interested in removing barriers, especially with something like this that does not cost."
Building off a body of published work largely produced by individual member organizations under the umbrella of the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education, the Act proposes three key changes to FERPA.
- Currently, child welfare agencies have to produce a court order to access a foster child's educational records. The act would eliminate this hurdle by giving the agencies the same access as parents.
- Additionally, the act would allow child welfare agencies to conduct studies related to the implementation of federal mandates concerning the educational stability and success of students in foster care.
- Finally, A + would eliminate the need to give parents duplicative notice when records are released. Currently, child welfare workers need to provide a court order to have educational records released by schools. As biological parents are parties to the case, such a notification becomes duplicative. More importantly it creates an additional barrier to accessing records, further slowing down the process and thus affecting children.
"I'm proud to join my colleagues from both sides of the aisle on this common sense legislation to promote educational stability among foster youth," said A + co-sponsor, Rep. Bachmann in a statement provided to The Chronicle. "Long before I was a member of Congress, I was advocating for educational stability for foster children. Over the years, my husband and I cared for 23 foster kids, and we witnessed serious weaknesses in the educational system as it applied to them."
Co-Sponsor, Rep. Marino has deep personal experience with foster care, having recently taken a foster youth into his home.
"To put it succinctly, this law un-complicates an already complicated system," Marino said. "This is the tip of the iceberg," he said of the Caucus' work. "We have to let the public know how the foster care system is working and how it is not working, and that fixing it is not all that complicated."