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Nothing Succeeds Like Success? Not for Foster Youth Services

January 23, 2012

By Amy Lemley

While my mind has been occupied with Realignment lately, I missed another troubling state-level development. In his FY 12-13 budget released on January 5th, Governor Brown has proposed eliminating categorical funding for Foster Youth Services, a program of the California Department of Education.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, Foster Youth Services is the only state program that provides academic and social support services to over 14,000 foster youth, ages four to twenty-one. Originally created as a demonstration program in 1981, Foster Youth Services was expanded statewide in 1998, and expanded further to help foster youth in juvenile detention facilities.

Foster Youth Services is responsible for much of California’s progress in improving educational outcomes for children and youth in foster care. It was first among state programs to appreciate the serious educational delays among children and youth in foster care and develop a set of approaches to narrow the educational gap. Just this week, USA Today had a full-length article on the education of youth in foster care that references developments in California, a testimony to the progress our state has made, due in large part to the groundwork of Foster Youth Services.

According to its 2010 Annual Report to the California State Legislature, Foster Youth Services has exceeded each of its legislatively mandated goals:

  • reduced the number of foster youth who were expelled from school;
  •  increased school attendance rates;
  •  reduced incidents of pupil discipline problems; and
  • most importantly, increased academic achievement through a program of intensive tutoring to over 9,000 foster youth statewide.

One of the most impressive parts of the Foster Youth Services program, however, is the quality of its people. In my experience, Foster Youth Services program coordinators are some of the most dedicated and hard-working people in the field of child welfare. They simply refuse to give up on the educational aspirations of young people in foster care.

I saw this first-hand in my former role as the Executive Director of First Place for Youth, which assists transition-age youth in foster care. Over and over again, Alameda County Foster Youth Services program coordinator Liz Tarango relentlessly navigated the educational bureaucracy to ensure young people in First Place received the support they required; she created hope for the children who most had relegated to the hopeless. This is the kind of hands-on educational advocacy I would want for my own children, and Foster Youth Services program coordinators around the state do the same every day.

That’s one reason why it is so discouraging to see Governor Brown’s proposal to include funding for Foster Youth Services in the weighted student formula. Under Brown’s proposal, most K-12 categorically funded programs would be consolidated and funded through a weighted pupil funding formula that will be phased in over a period of five years. Rather than being directed to the county offices of education as is currently the case, Foster Youth Services funding would go directly to the districts. Districts, in turn, would have greater discretion about how that funding is used. Whether or not this funding would be spent on children and youth in foster care is another question.

That may make sense for some of K-12 programs, but not for Foster Youth Services. Unlike other categorically funded programs that Governor Brown proposes to consolidate such as civics education or physical education, Foster Youth Services serves a very narrow, very specific group of young people. If the Foster Youth Services budget is folded into the weighted pupil funding, will counties have adequate funding to provide these specific services to a small, yet very needy group of students? Will we be taking a step backwards in addressing the educational needs of our state’s children and youth in foster care? My sense is that yes, in the process of re-organizing our state’s educational funding, the needs of this small group of young people may well be overlooked.

The fact is that there are programs that are not included in weighted funding formula, including special education funding. When you think about it, excluding special education makes sense and as a program, it has many parallels with Foster Youth Services. The number of students in special education is not large relative to the population of California students, but their needs are serious. To lump their funding in with over 40 K-12 programs could jeopardize the availability of special education services in the schools.

This approach to maintain categorical funding is a better one for Foster Youth Services and one that we must recommend to our policy makers. Children Now and the National Center for Youth Law have written a letter expressing opposition to Governor’s proposal. If you would like to  add your organization’s name to the letter, email Jesse Hahnel by February 3rd.

California should be proud of the success it has achieved in improving educational outcomes for children and youth in foster care. This is the wrong time to abandon success.

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