Senate Committee Passes Education Bill That Strengthens Education Stability for Foster Children

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The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee passed a rewrite of the No Child Left Behind education bill last night, which included an amendment that would require school districts to work to ensure that foster children can remain in their home schools, if they want to and it’s in their best interest.

The HELP Committee, in a 15-7 vote, passed the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act during the second day of a markup. It included an amendment offered by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) after hours of debate and apparently with lingering apprehension.

“It’s pretty astounding how many homes they’re in throughout their life,” said Franken (D-Minn.), speaking about the high number of placements some foster youths experience. “The least we can do is keep that continuity” of school.

Franken’s amendment would for the first time place some responsibility on school  districts to continue to enroll children who have been moved from the school area, only because they have been removed from their parents’ home.   

If remaining in their home is not in the child’s best interest, the amendment mandates that the child should be “immediately enrolled” in a new school “even if the child is unable to produce records normally required for enrollment.” The clause is designed to address what has become a common problem for foster children:  lost or missing documentation that causes long delays when they must change school districts.  

Although the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act required state child welfare agencies to ensure children had the opportunity to remain in their home schools, but there were no federal requirements that a new district accept them after removal from home.

“Child welfare agencies can’t go it alone,” Franken said. “They need full cooperation.”

Franken originally had proposed two almost identical amendments concerning the acceptance and retention of foster children; one of them included grant money.  He ultimately decided to withdraw that one.

The amendment providing for foster children’s continued enrollment in their home schools produced wariness from members of both parties. Committee chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.)  wondered if the amendment was necessary given the requirements in Fostering Connections;  Ranking member Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) and Sens. Burr, Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)and Michael Bennet (D-Colo.)  all voiced concern over how states were expected to pay for transporting students back to their old school district.

How to pay for transportation?

The amendment that passed requires educational and child welfare agencies to enter into an agreement on “how foster care maintenance payments will be used to help fund the transportation of children in foster care to their schools of origin.”

The 2008 Fostering Connections legislation appears to open federal IV-E foster care funding to address most of the transportation costs.

States can use IV-E money for “reasonable travel for the child to remain in the school in which the child is enrolled at the time of placement as an allowable foster care maintenance cost,” according to the law.

The Administration for Children and Families is the Department of Health and Human Services division that oversees IV-E funding. Yesterday, ACF Acting Assistant Secretary said during a webcast about education and foster youth that his agency would co-host a conference with the Department of Education to help states develop plans for educational stability.

“The transportation side is important to big states that have a lot of roads,” Murkowski said. Burr suggested “maybe some limitations on distance.”

“Yeah, it’s going to cost some money, sometimes, for a kid to get transportation,” Franken said later in the debate, slightly frustrated by the friction on transportation costs. “These are wards of the state. This is our responsibility.”

Similar transportation costs for homeless and runaway children, who are awaiting placement into foster care, are covered through the McKinney-Vento Act.

Some states already mandate that schools allow foster children to remain in their home schools. California has required this type of educational continuity since it passed Assembly Bill 490 in 2003.

Franken’s amendment would also require that a state report card, a concept included in the Harkin-Enzi bill, include data …”disaggregated by status as a child in foster care.”

All of the Democrats on the HELP committee voted for the amendment, along with Murkowski.

Resuming the markup

Consideration of the reauthorization continued with little interruption yesterday after a procedural objection abruptly halted the markup session yesterday, with arguments about the maneuver spilling over onto the Senate Floor.

Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), angry at what he said had been too little time to study the bill assembled by Harkin and Enzi, invoked a rule that prohibits committees meeting for more than two hours while the full Senate is in session.  The Senate was in session all day considering an appropriations bill.

A compromise – guaranteeing a hearing after a vote on the reauthorization in committee and before it is sent to the Senate floor – was fashioned to give Paul and others more opportunity to add their ideas to the legislation. Yesterday's hearing began at 8 a.m. and continued throughout the day with breaks for floor votes.

Other amendments

Among the notable action yesterday:

  • The committee approved an amendment by Patty Murray (D-Wash.) that would require schools to cross-tabulate data on students so that states are able to look at different intersections of demographics. The example used at today’s meeting was the ability for states to look at statistics for African-American girls and boys, as opposed to silos of statistics on African-Americans, boys and girls. The amendment was supported by more than two dozen groups - including the National Network for Youth and the Healthy Teen Network – some of which opposed the overall bill in a statement yesterday.
  • The body approved an amendment by Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) to exempt culturally-specific teachers in her state from the federal standards on high quality teachers. These instructors are usually not trained teachers but are experts in a rarely spoken language or cultural history.
  • Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pushed through an amendment that would require states that pursued certain competitive ESEA grants to track “the number and percentage of students who do not transition from eighth grade to ninth grade and who have not transferred to and enrolled” in another school district. The law currently requires tracking of students in the years after ninth grade, and Sanders’ interest is in gauging the extent to which youth drop out in between middle and high school.
  • Jonny Isakson’s (R-Ga.) amendment to allow for an individual assessment measure for each special needs student with an Independent Education Plan failed.

Another amendment that sparked lengthy debate this afternoon was submitted by former Education Secretary and now Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) about who would set conditions and methods of accountability for failing schools.

Alexander’s  amendment would allow states to submit their own turnaround plans for the schools performing in the bottom 5 percent. Supporters of the amendment believe that states may come up with better plans than the ones currently listed as options in the Harkin-Enzi bill. Opponents fear that allowing states to submit a plan for improvement to the Secretary of Education would create two problems: 

  • That most states would do so and some would attempt the bare minimum of reform, and
  • That it leaves the secretary open to pressure from congressmen from the states submitting those plans.

The amendment ultimately passed 15-7.

Also in the afternoon session, an amendment by Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) was approved that requires states that pursue competitive grants for “early college” programs make those programs available “at no cost” for students at low-income schools.

Early college programs are high schools that allow students to complete a high school diploma and the first two years of college in a shorter time frame, an effort to keep youths at risk of dropping out in the classroom.