May was national Foster-Care Month, intended to raise awareness of a population among the most at-risk academically. The consensus of a recent statewide California Education Summit was that the Golden State does not oversee educational outcomes for these children. A scholarship program like Florida’s could improve their chances for success.
California has the largest foster-care population in the country, with approximately 73,000 children and youth in the state’s system at any given time. The educational outcomes of this population are not encouraging. A full 75 percent function below their grade level, and 83 percent are held back by grade three. Between 33 percent and 50 percent require special education. Almost half become high-school dropouts, and less than 10 percent enroll in college.
Children in foster care can experience a dozen or more placements before they exit the system at age 18 with few life skills. Placement instability leads to school instability. It can take four to six months for students to recover academically after changing schools. And, the number of placements has been associated with at least one serious delay in academic skill.
The effects of poor academic preparation have long-term consequences. Adults formerly in the foster-care system are more likely to have few job skills, be homeless, rely on social health and welfare services, be incarcerated, and have drug or alcohol dependencies.
A leading concern among potential adoptive parents is being unable to provide for a child’s education. A foster-care scholarship program modeled after Florida’s successful programs would help relieve this concern—particularly when the state cannot afford to increase monthly stipends to recommended levels and the supply of foster families is dwindling. This is an important policy consideration because foster families typically have lower than average household incomes.
To ensure parents can access schools that best meet their children’s needs, Florida students who are low-income, in foster-care, in or assigned to failing schools, are eligible for scholarships averaging less than $4,000. Florida students with special needs may use scholarships averaging less than $7,000 to attend the school of their choice. These programs have improved the educational outcomes of participating Florida students as well as public-school performance overall.
In just over a decade, Florida has turned a fourth-grade reading deficit on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) of five points or more among the most disadvantaged student populations, compared to California and the country, into gains equivalent to three full grades within current appropriation levels. Today, at-risk Florida fourth-graders now rank first or among the top five in NAEP reading achievement among their peers nationwide. All Florida fourth-graders now rank fourth-best in NAEP reading achievement compared to California, whose fourth-graders rank fourth worst.
Florida has expanded its scholarship programs for at-risk students with overwhelming bi-partisan support beginning in 2008—at a time when its projected deficit represented 8.2 percent of the state general fund budget—nearly identical to California’s projected 8.3 percent general fund deficit at the time.
Official government analyses found that for every dollar spent on non-special education scholarships Florida gains $1.49 in education funding. In contrast, it would require an estimated $145 million in additional spending just for foster-care students to achieve similar gains under California’s current government-run schooling system.
A California Foster-Care Scholarship Program could therefore achieve comparable results without the additional cost. In fact, the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office found that a Florida-style scholarship program for students in foster care would have no negative impact to state or public-school budgets, and would likely generate savings for both.
Such a program could also encourage adoptions by empowering foster and adoptive parents over their children’s education, as well as improve school stability and the provision of specialized education services for foster-care students within current appropriation levels. Enacting a Florida-style foster-care scholarship program is an academically and fiscally responsible education reform. It could help more deserving children in foster care find loving permanent homes, while improving their academic futures along with millions of California public-school students.
Vicki E. Murray, Ph.D., is PRI Education Studies Associate Director. She and Evelyn B. Stacey, PRI Education Studies Policy Fellow, are co-authors of Fostering Opportunity and Improving Achievement: The Benefits of a Foster-Care Scholarship Program in California.