(Update: The Uninterrupted Scholars Act was signed into law by President Obama on Jan. 14, 2013)
The Uninterrupted Scholars Act, which sits on President Obama’s desk awaiting signature, marks another important step on the longer road to increased educational opportunity for students in foster care.
The act will amend the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) to ease child welfare agencies’ access to foster children’s student records.
Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), who as the most senior Democrat on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce was critical in getting the bill to the floor, explained its importance during a Dec. 30 session of the House.
“Foster children are some of the most at-risk students,” Miller said. “Throughout their young lives they may change care placements multiple times. … Each move can put their educational success in jeopardy. That’s because the caseworkers who advocate for them as they move from one school to another often do so without critical information.”
As the law stands, child welfare agencies must have a court order to gain access to student records. This legal hurdle not only slows down the transfer of records as students bounce from school to school, but also creates missed opportunities for social workers to intervene when a child struggles academically, or to celebrate academic success.
In 1981, California launched Foster Youth Services, a statewide program that brought educational liaisons and mentors to county offices of education to help ensure that records follow students in foster care. But communication still varies from county to county, and from school district to school district, creating an information gap that the Uninterrupted Scholars Act can help fill.
“A lot of time the social worker is the only person who keeps track, who knows the history,” said Jetaine Hart, a former foster youth who now works as an educational mentor for foster youth in Alameda County. “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.
Teri Kook, the child welfare director for the San Francisco-based Stuart Foundation and a national expert on education and foster care, concurs. “Ultimately, I believe this ability to share information, craft individualized academic plans and build upon the resiliency and strengths of students in foster care will improve high school graduation rates and college access and success for this vulnerable population,” Kook said.
Beyond the immediate significance to the more than 50,000 children living in foster care in California, Uninterrupted Scholars builds on a larger national movement towards educational opportunity for foster youth – a movement largely started in the Golden State.
In addition to the launch of Foster Youth Services in 1981, state legislators passed Assembly Bill 490 in 2004 to increase school stability for foster youth. The law gives students in foster care the right to stay in their school of origin even if a changed foster care placement forces them into a new school district, and ensures the rapid transfer of their records when a school move is deemed necessary.
In 2008, the federal government followed suit with strict provisions around the educational stability of foster youth in the landmark Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act. In 2011, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) passed an amendment to the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) calling for the Department of Education to consider the educational stability and success of foster youth.
The bipartisan, bicameral Uninterrupted Scholars Act bolsters the strength of the movement. This issue – that of leveling the educational playing field for our most vulnerable children – is one that ever more leaders are focused on solving. Their success in improving the educational achievement of foster youth could light the way for the broader education reforms this country so desperately needs.
A version of this story originally appeared in The Chronicle of Social Change.