The Government Accountability Office (GAO) latest report on “Foster Care: Education Could Help States Improve Educational Stability for Youth in Foster Care,” examined the implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provisions related to the educational stability of youth in foster care. ESSA requirements as it relates to improving educational stability for youth in foster care included collaboration between the state educational agencies (SEA), the local education agencies (LEAs), and the state child welfare agency and contain several requirements in the Title I state plans.

ESSA ensures that children in foster care are enrolled or remain in their school of origin unless it is not in the best interest of the child to attend the school of origin. If the best interest determination is made that it is not in a child’s best interest to remain in the school of origin, the child should be immediately enrolled in a new school. The SEA, LEAs, and the state child welfare agency must designate a point of contact to ensure the educational stability of children in foster care and collaboration and implementation of procedures are taking place between the state and local levels. The LEAs develop and implement clear written procedures to ensure that transportation is available and funded when the child in foster care remain in their school of origin. In addition, SEAs and school districts are required to report on educational outcomes for children and youth in foster care, including academic achievement and graduation rates.

GAO conducted a national survey from state educational agencies (SEA) foster care points of contact and interviewed several stakeholders, including state and local education and child welfare agency officials and youth. SEAs reported several challenges in implementing ESSA provisions related to educational stability for youth in foster care, including staff turnover among the child welfare and local educational agencies and in providing transportation for students to school, as indicated in the chart below. Staff turnover makes it difficult and impossible to keep an accurate point of contact for state or local education and child welfare agencies, as described by survey respondents.

The best interest determination was determined to be a challenge in implementing ESSA educational stability requirements for foster youth because child welfare agencies’ responsibility to prioritize a child’s safety when placing the child in a new foster home is more immediate than educational stability. Many child welfare agencies who responded to the survey indicated that consulting with school districts on the best interest determination was not warranted or helpful to collaborate; although, youth who were interviewed disagreed. Youth stated that changing schools created additional challenges, including the loss of credits, graduating on time, and social connections with friends, teachers, and staff.

Identifying or arranging transportation in thirty-seven of 50 SEAs was indicated as somewhat challenging, and the use of different approaches varied for youth in foster care. School districts and child welfare agencies use methods such as foster parents, school district or child welfare staff, rerouting buses, or public and private transportation modes to transport youth to their current school. Another challenge with transportation was how to fund the cost of transporting youth to their school, and 12 of 30 SEAs reported it as extremely challenging and required multiple funding streams between school districts and child welfare. The use of Title I or Title IV-E, both federal funds, can be used to cover the transportation costs; however, some jurisdiction do not use the funds for various reasons. For example, for states to draw down Title IV-E funds, youth would have to be eligible.

Recommendations for implementing ESSA educational stability requirements for youth in foster care successfully included an online Department of Education Clearinghouse of relevant resources for all SEAs to access and a process for updating the SEAs point of contact email list.