In 1981, the California State Legislature launched the Foster Youth Services program to address the educational needs of foster children, putting California at the vanguard of a national movement to level the educational playing field for students in foster care.
But dramatic changes to how K-12 education is funded in Governor Jerry Brown’s latest proposed budget threaten this program. The governor’s January budget plan consolidates most of the categorical funding streams for schools and folds them into a new “weighted student formula.” Foster Youth Services (FYS) would be consolidated, leaving it up to the state’s 1,000 school districts to decide whether or not to maintain the program.
Foster youth advocates and experts argue that since FYS is a small, specialized program, targeting a unique and vulnerable student population, it should be maintained as a separate categorical program, just like special education.
“In the process of reorganizing our state’s educational funding, the needs of this small group of young people may well be overlooked,” wrote Amy Lemley, policy director of the John Burton Foundation, in one of her widely read child welfare blogs.
Even administrators who are happy to get out from the morass of categorical programs say FYS is different. “I am very supportive of the governor’s proposal,” said Dr. Julian Crocker, superintendent of the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education. But he quickly added, “Having said that, in a sweeping proposal like this there may be exceptions, and Foster Youth Services is one.”
Three decades ago, Foster Youth Services was launched in six pilot school districts to ensure that instruction, tutoring, academic counseling, and the provision of academic services were a priority for students in foster care. Since then the program has expanded to all 58 counties, where FYS coordinators work to provide stable school environments in the often-turbulent bustle of foster care. At a little more than $15 million, the program is one of the smaller categoricals being washed into the weighted student formula.
In its 2010 annual report, FYS found that 71 percent of students in the program graduated from high school, earned a certificate of completion or GED, or passed the California High School Proficiency Exam. That’s compared to about 50 percent nationwide, according to studies.
Data like this, albeit limited, has made FYS a model program for advocates across the nation, who have long argued that heightened educational opportunity for students in foster care is a key component to unlocking their potential and adequately serving the responsibility the public took on when removing these children from their biological families. Last October, the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee approved an amendment by Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (known as No Child Left Behind), with marked similarities to FYS.
Support for FYS reaches most of the highest levels in California government – at least it used to. In its 2007 report, Students First, Governor Schwarzenegger’s Committee on Education Excellence specifically recommended that students in foster care be treated differently in any discussion of the future of categorical spending, “because these students are ultimately the responsibility of the state, and the current accountability system does not ensure that they are receiving the supports they need.”
Teri Kook, Director of Child Welfare at the Stuart Foundation, agrees with the distinction cast by the Committee. “We have a higher level of responsibility for children when we are acting as their parent,” Kook said.
Kook argued that if FYS is pooled with all the other categorical funds the state could lose much of the progress in data collection and service delivery gained over the past 30 years.
Formal debate over the future of FYS will begin on February 16, at a hearing before the State Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee.
Daniel Heimpel is the Director of Fostering Media Connections, a San Francisco-based journalism initiative focusing on foster care and vulnerable children.