The year 2013 started with both houses of Congress passing a bill focused on improving the educational outcomes of foster youth.
The Uninterrupted Scholars Act (USA), submitted by the bi-partisan co-chairs of both the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth and the Senate Foster Youth Caucus, was approved in the Senate by unanimous consent on Dec. 17th, and made it through the House on January 1st.
Among a handful of members of Congress who took the floor to discuss the bill on Dec. 30th was Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), who introduced Uninterrupted Scholars alongside Caucus co-founders Rep. Tom Marino (R-Pa.), Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), and Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) in May. "We have a responsibility to foster youth and children who we removed from their parents' care," Bass said. "Youth who we promised to keep safe and help to succeed. The Uninterrupted Scholars Act will help help us keep this promise."
If signed by the president, Uninterrupted Scholars will amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to allow child welfare agencies access to foster student records. When FERPA was written in 1974, lawmakers' intended to protect parents' control over their children's student records. But, the unintended consequence for children whose parent is the state -- like those in foster care -- were time-consuming legal hurdles social workers had to jump for access to foster student records.
Jetaine Hart, a former foster youth who now works as an educational mentor for foster youth in Alameda County, California, says that slowed access to student records for child welfare agencies means missed opportunities to celebrate a foster child's academic success or to help overcome educational challenges. "Now social workers won't have to wait to access this information -- they will know what attendance looks like, know what's going on with grades and disciplinary action in real time," Hart said in an interview. "That will help them make better decisions about the educational needs of the kids."
Further, lawmakers and advocates argue that the new law will help smooth the transition to new schools for foster youth who are used to bouncing from one school to the next as they move from foster home to foster home. Nearly two thirds of former foster youth surveyed by Casey Family Programs in a national alumni study experienced seven or more school moves from kindergarten to twelfth grade. Coupled with the existing barriers in FERPA, educational and child welfare agencies struggle to ensure student records rapidly follow foster youth through school moves. This often results in an unnecessary loss of school credits, which contributes to a dismal foster youth high graduation rate of roughly 50 percent, according to data compiled by the National Working Group on Foster Care and Education.
"Foster Children are some of the most at risk students," Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), and the senior democrat on the House Education and The Workforce Committee, said during the floor debate."Throughout their young lives they may change care placements multiple times. Each placement means adjusting to a new family; often to a new community, new friends and a new school. Each move can put their educational success in jeapordy that's because the caseworkers who advocate for them as they move from one school to another often do so without critical information. Though current law rightly requires foster care workers to move children's educational records in their case plans, another federal law limits the ability of caseworkers to access those records in a timely manner."
R.J. Sloke was a 2012 summer intern with Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) as part of the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute's Foster Youth Internship Program. Sloke had bounced through a dozen schools in the five years before he aged out of foster care at age 18 and lost many school credits along the way. This caused him to be held back in ninth grade three times. On July 20th, Sloke sat down with Sen. Blunt and told him his story. Touched, the Republican senator decided to sign on as a sponsor of the senate bill, which was soon after introduced by Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.).
Upon hearing about Uninterrupted Scholar's passage in both houses of Congress, Sloke felt encouraged and empowered.
"I feel like all the pain and suffering I went through transferring all those schools wasn't for nothing," he wrote in an email. "Now that USA is passed, foster youth have a much better shot at graduating high school, thus helping them to become more self sufficient in their lives."