Finally, the need to improve foster care in America has begun to get the attention it deserves.
ABC recently ran a prime-time special, “A Call to Action: Saving Our Children,” in which Diane Sawyer documented many of the challenges that face foster children.
In his recent farewell address to Congress, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who has worked on these issues, called the “catastrophe of America’s child welfare and foster care systems . . . a national outrage, a government failure and a bipartisan embarrassment.”
The key to foster care, of course, is to prepare children to live as adults once they leave the system. When foster kids turn 18, they get two birthday presents – their independence and an end to support from the state system they’ve known all their lives.
They do get some help. Congress provides $140 million annually for state grants to provide housing subsidies, medical benefits and education or training vouchers. But for many, the challenge is too great. Experts estimate that between 12 percent and 36 percent become homeless for a time.
The problem with the state grants is that the help comes too little, too late. Problems begin earlier for foster children and become clear in their performance in school.
The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that foster children are held back a grade more often, score lower on standardized tests and have higher rates of absenteeism, tardiness and truancy than their peers. They are twice as likely as the rest of the student body to drop out before graduating, according to the American School Board Journal.
We shouldn’t be surprised to find that foster children struggle in school. Adults often expect little of them, despite studies that show they have high educational aspirations and resent the fact that more is not expected of them.
Also, most foster children move several times as they grow up. This frequently involves changing schools, which causes learning disruptions and emotional insecurity. A Columbia University survey of adults formerly in foster care found they “strongly believed they had been shifted around too much while in care, and as a result, they suffered, especially in terms of education.”
So what can be done to give foster children better educational opportunities?
Recently, Arizona legislators offered an intriguing solution: private-school scholarships for foster children. According to the Goldwater Institute, the $2.5 million program will give 500 foster children a $5,000 tuition scholarship. Republican lawmakers proposed the measure, and Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, signed it into law.
Giving scholarships to New Mexico’s estimated 2,100 foster children to allow them to attend private schools could provide a number of important benefits. It could enable some foster children to stay in the same school even if they change homes. This would allow for the development of friendships with peers and adults that are so critical to the future of displaced children. Guardians, in turn, could choose the best private school available, ensuring the children receive the best education available in that area.
Importantly, Arizona’s new scholarship program for foster children is voluntary.
Foster children who are happy with their school won’t be affected. The program would provide new opportunities only to children ill-served by their current school.
No one claims this program will cure all that ails foster children. They face so many challenges that no one program will solve them all.
But in an area of public policy, where solutions often prove elusive, Arizona lawmakers should be applauded for trying an innovative approach. It’s a good first step toward providing better educational opportunities for our most at-risk children.
Lips is an adjunct scholar at the Tijeras-based Rio Grande Foundation and a policy analyst who specializes in education issues at the Washington, D.C.-based Heritage Foundation. His Policy Brief, “Providing School Choice to New Mexico Children in Foster Care: Fostering Stability and Achievement,” can be accessed at the foundation’s Web site (www.riograndefoundation.org).