By KELLI KENNEDY
Federal lawmakers have passed a bill that will give social workers better access to school records in an effort to improve dismal education outcomes for foster children.
Social workers had been required to get a court order to access a foster child's school records under a law meant to protect the child's privacy. But advocates said the extra red tape made it difficult for social workers because foster youths change schools frequently as they move between different homes.
When child welfare agencies cannot access school records, children often don't have a way to bring those documents to new schools because foster parents may not be legal guardians entitled to access those records. Some students end up taking the same classes over because credits are lost or don't transfer.
Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., sponsored the bill, which passed the House late Tuesday night with support from Reps. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn.; Tom Marino, R-Pa.; and Jim McDermott, D-Wash. The bill earned bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress and is awaiting the president's approval. The Senate passed the measure in mid-December.
"Foster youth can have a hard enough time completing their educations as they move around within the foster care system. Federal law should not add to those challenges by contributing to enrollment delays or inappropriate course placements," Bass said.
The bill gives child welfare workers access to school records and paves the way for better data sharing between education and child welfare agencies. The bill also allows child welfare agencies to use education records to study how well foster kids are measuring up to federal education mandates.
Bass, who founded the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, has been traveling the country discussing foster care issues. She met with officials in Florida last March.
The congresswoman said the group is trying to capitalize on bipartisan support for foster care issues and has centered on education, noting that 50 percent of the nation's more than 400,000 foster kids won't graduate from high school. Nearly 94 percent of those who do make it through high school do not finish college, according to a 2010 study from Chapin Hall, the University of Chicago's research arm.
Advocates say it's been difficult to coordinate policies and data sharing among multiple government agencies.
Last fall, federal child welfare officials sent a letter advising state officials of a 2008 law that requires the children to remain at the same school after they are placed in a new foster home. It is routinely ignored by state and local officials who say it's impractical and too expensive.