The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) took full effect for the 2017-18 school year. This federal law provides new opportunities for foster children as part of reauthorizing and changing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) originally passed in 1965 to change the way federal elementary and secondary funding is distributed in an effort to better provide for the unique needs of every child and improve the quality of education for children of low-income families and districts. ESEA has not always met its goals, leading to prior changes such as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, which prior to the new ESSA was the most recent major overhaul of the ESEA.
Those 2001 NCLB changes made school funding dependent upon standard achievement testing for each state. The new ESEA modified that standardized testing requirement to instead allow states more leeway in determining what steps to take to address the achievement gaps within and among school districts.
This new law includes specific provisions which directly benefit children in foster care by requiring that:
- Children in foster care must remain in their school of origin, unless it is determined that it is not in his or her best interest.
- Prompt, cost-effective transportation must be provided to foster care children to remain at their school of origin.
- If it is not in a foster child’s best interest to remain in the school of origin, the child must immediately be enrolled in the new school of residence even without the normally required enrollment documents.
Even the best of students would have a difficult time changing schools and curriculum in the middle of a school year. This is even more challenging for foster youth. Allowing them to remain in the same school avoids disrupting coursework, or being out of school during the enrollment process, and maintains foster children’s existing supports – which can come in the form of teachers, coaches, friends, sports teams or clubs. Maintaining that educational and social stability when everything else in their lives is in flux also helps the school and those who know the child to play a part in keeping an eye on the student’s mental health and resilience during the trauma of being removed from their home. It also avoids the stigma and isolation of being a new student at a new school – let alone being known as a new foster child at a new school.
In cases where a child does want to change schools and have a fresh start, the new law allows them to begin school even if all their papers aren’t available. This shortens the time that they previously would have spent in a group home or foster home waiting to start school. That waiting time kept foster children away from learning, left them further behind in their studies, prevented them from immediately establishing structure and routine in their new, and socially isolated them in their group or foster home.
Another advantage for foster youth is that these new requirements led to better communication among schools, the foster placements, and the child’s educational decision maker as each school district has created a foster care liaison position and CYF has more staff to ensure that the educational part of the transition into the foster care system is as non-disruptive as possible and that the educational and transportation needs of children are facilitated by everyone involved.