Foster Children Deserve a Quality Education

March 23, 2007 11:33PM

By Dan Lips For most teenagers, an 18th birthday is a special occasion, a milestone in the journey to adulthood. Yet for many children in foster care, an 18th birthday is often nothing to celebrate. That is the age when many foster children are transitioned out of the state’s child welfare system and forced to meet the harsh realities of life. Too often, this transition leads to tragedy. Research shows that foster children are far more at risk of poor life outcomes than the general population. Adults formerly in foster care are more likely to be homeless, incarcerated and dependent on state services. They’re also more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse and poor mental health. There’s even evidence to suggest that foster care is a generational cycle: Young women in foster care are more likely to have early pregnancies and place their own children into the foster care system. Several factors determine whether a foster child can beat these odds. First is whether the child has received quality services while in the child welfare system. Another key factor is education. Too often, foster children do not receive a quality education. Research shows that foster children are far behind their peers in the classroom. The National Conference of State Legislators reports that foster children exhibit “high rates of grade retention; lower scores on standardized tests; and higher absenteeism, tardiness, truancy and dropout rates.” The American School Board Journal found that foster children are twice as likely to drop out before graduation. Quality education is an important foundation for any child. Foster children—already facing such great disadvantages—must acquire the basic skills necessary to succeed or risk suffering disastrous consequences. One big roadblock for foster children in the classroom is instability. Foster care life is often unstable because frequent out-of-home placements are the norm for many children. Out-of-home placements take an emotional toll on children and also cause disruptions in the learning process when children are forced to change schools. These disruptions can cause students to lose ground academically. It’s no wonder that children in long-term foster care who switch homes and schools often fall behind. Policymakers must develop education policies that address this problem, and look for ways to provide better opportunities for foster children. One simple option would be to offer a school tuition scholarship to children in foster care. A foster scholarship program would provide a number of important benefits for children in foster care. Giving foster children scholarships to choose their schools could help them stay in high-quality schools even when their home bases change. The scholarship would offer both excellent educations and give children who already face many hurdles a sense of belonging. Staying in the same high-quality school year-after-year would allow children to build long-term friendships and peer groups. In surveys, adults formerly in foster care lament years of low expectations when few teachers, guidance counselors or others expected them to succeed. They also identify a lack of autonomy and stability as a common problem causing academic and social difficulty. School transfers often meant the end of important friendships with peers—relationships that are particularly critical for children who lack strong family ties. Foster scholarships would not be a fix-all for the many challenges facing foster children, but it could be a simple and important way to give them a leg up—expanding their opportunities and providing needed stability. With just over 10,000 school-age children in foster care in Tennessee, such a program would be limited in scope. But for Tennessee’s Foster Children, the impact of a quality education in a stable environment would benefit them for a lifetime. No one should have to fear an 18th birthday. Providing better educational options would be a simple and important way to help ensure that every foster child in the state receives the necessary skills needed to attain independence in adulthood. ###