One of the first human service issues to be taken up by Congress will be education.  The Senate HELP Committee has been in deep discussions with the Chairman, Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) hoping to move quickly on a bill to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in the next month.  The last time the law was reauthorized was in 2002 when it was called the No Child Left Behind Act.  It expired five years later and Congress has not acted since.

The week before the congressional break, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce approved HR 5 by a vote of 21 to 16.  There were no hearings on the legislation with Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) arguing that the Committee had conducted enough work and hearings in the past Congress and new hearings were not necessary.  The bill is similar to past House Republican bills that would do away with many of the current law mandates and funding requirements.

Of special interest to the child welfare community is an effort to amend the ESEA to better address the needs of children in foster care.  The 2008 Fostering Connections to Success Act directed child welfare agencies to assure that if a child is placed in foster care they remain in their same school if it’s in the child’s best interest.  If a child must move because it is in their best interest then the child welfare agency is to assure that they get immediate enrollment in a new school district.  This also includes the required transfer of important documents such as education records.

The changes enacted in 2008 have been the focus of much federal attention.  The Department of Education and HHS have been attempting to work with states to assure that the 2008 requirements are being carried out.  It still remains a challenge for child welfare since the mandate is on child welfare and not the local education agency or the state education department. As a result the child welfare community has been working through key allies in the Congress to implement provisions in the ESEA that would mirror the requirements on child welfare agencies.  Most recently Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) issued a statement regarding legislation, the Strengthening America’s School Act that would amend the ESEA.  Their bill and future amendments would seek to provide the same assurances regarding the child’s educational interest.

In addition one challenge has been the issue of transportation costs when the child is moved outside of the school district but continues to attend the same school—beyond current transportation routes.  States can use child welfare funding (Title IV-E) but different school districts have different transportation structures and funding.  The amendments would require a negotiation and plan between the child welfare agency and the education agency to determine how the transportation costs will be covered.

The legislation requires the local school to have a designated contact within the school if the child welfare agency has a designated contact.  To avoid undercutting the support for homeless children and youth, in schools that are considered a “high needs school” the point of contact must be a different person than the school liaison assigned to monitor homeless children and youth as outlined under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

The House Committee on Education and the Workforce passed legislation out of that Committee before the congressional break and that legislation does not include language regarding children in foster care.  The House is expected to take up the legislation later this week and it is unclear how extensive the House debate will be when it comes to the House floor for a vote but if amendments are allowed the Democrats are expected to offer at least a substitute bill that will include language similar to the Senate amendments. The Senate like the House is attempting to move the bill quickly but in the Senate a committee and then a floor debate may take several weeks in each case.

Congressman Kline has indicated that he would like to have the bill voted on by the House by late February and said he said his goal is to have a conference committee with Senate counter parts after the Senate has acted on its bill. He has indicated that if the timing works right the Congress would have a bill on the President’s desk by the end of this year.

CWLA has been part of a coalition of advocacy groups working to support these reforms, See here to read the recent sign-on letter in support of ESEA/child welfare reforms.