The Obama administration on Thursday released new guidance explaining what states and school districts must do to meet new legal obligations to students in foster care, who are often among the nation’s most vulnerable children.
For the first time, schools, districts and states must publicly report on the performance of children in foster care, a requirement that advocates hope will help shine a light on the need for more attention and help.
Also for the first time, schools are legally bound to work with child welfare agencies to ensure that children in foster care can stay in their school if it’s in their best interest, even if they move — a measure meant to provide stability for children who often otherwise lack it.
If school district and child welfare agency officials decide that moving to a new school would be in a child’s best interest, then the receiving school must allow immediate enrollment, even if the child cannot produce the required paperwork.
The new provisions were written into the Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced No Child Left Behind as the nation’s main education law in December. They are meant to protect the approximately 270,000 children in foster care who are enrolled in U.S. public schools; foster children are more likely than their peers to be retained in a grade level and to drop out of high school.
“For far too long, we as a country have failed so many of our most vulnerable students,” Education Secretary John King Jr. told reporters Wednesday. “We cannot allow the students who need our attention the most to be treated unfairly under the law.”
The new guidance, released Thursday by the departments of Education and Health and Human Services, explains with more specificity how states and schools should live up to the law’s provisions on children in foster care.
It recommends, for example, that states, districts and child welfare agencies set up a process for dispute resolution in cases in which there is disagreement over whether a child would be best served by staying in their original school or moving to a new one. And it clarifies that if an agreement cannot be reached, then the child welfare agency should have the final say.
The guidance does not, however, clear up an important ambiguity in the law: who must pay for transportation to a child’s original school if the child moves outside that school’s attendance zone.
The law requires that transportation be provided but does not say what should happen if a school district and a child welfare agency disagree over who should cover the bill. The Education Department has proposed regulations that would require the district to pay if negotiations over sharing the cost fail. The department is accepting public comment on those draft regulations, and officials said they would incorporate feedback as they write the final rule.
The department also issued guidance Thursday outlining how states and school districts should solicit feedback from their communities as they figure out how to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act. The guidance is meant to ensure that everyone with an interest in education — including parents, teachers and members of historically underserved communities — have a chance to chime in.