School Choice Isn’t That Simple for Youth in Foster Care

In theory, students in foster care, who may relocate frequently, would be prime candidates to benefit from school choice, with its specialized school options and flexibility.

But navigating choice processes, and even just identifying the right adult to weigh in on a school decision, can be a fraught process for youth in foster care. When a student is placed in foster care, the decision-making rights to their education may rest with one of many possible adults: a parent, another family member, a court-appointed volunteer, or a social worker. Each of these adults have different skills and capacity to dedicate to a student in their care. Some foster parents may have significant time to research school options and help a student understand which school may be the best fit, whereas a social worker has to care for dozens of students simultaneously.

These students deserve access to the full range of school choice options that their peers have, even if they frequently relocate — they shouldn’t have to lurch from assigned school to assigned school. (Federal law requires students in foster care to be eligible to remain in their original school even if placed under care in another district. Sadly, a recent U.S. Government and Accountability Office report found that state agencies are often unable to pay the cost of transporting students to their school of origin.)

As many communities consider expanding school choice options, it is vital for education agencies and systems of care to be mindful of the specific challenges students in foster care experience. My colleague Hailly Korman and I are currently working on a new project focused on the experiences of foster youth in communities with relatively high levels of school choice, exploring the following questions:

  • How do local agencies such as departments of education, offices of child welfare, and offices of health and human services think about making school choice accessible for foster youth?
  • What unique barriers do school choice options present for students in foster care?
  • What unique supports would students in foster care need in a complex school choice environment?
  • How do unified enrollment systems increase or decrease access to school options for students in foster care?

After conducting preliminary research on 16 cities, we’ve narrowed our focus down to Denver, Los Angeles, New York City, and Washington, DC. We chose these cities because of their robust school choice ecosystems and meaningful numbers of school-aged youth in foster care.

Just yesterday, the Los Angeles Unified School District made progress on its approach to better understanding equity in local school choice by passing a resolution to collect and disaggregate data on access to choice programs across multiple dimensions — one of which is foster care. Having this data will allow both the District and the community to better understand who is applying to choice programs and ultimately enrolling in them.

If you are part of a state or local agency, a member of an advocacy organization, a foster parent, or a student in foster care that has grappled with any of the questions we’re exploring, we encourage you to contact us at hailly.korman@bellwethereducation.org or justin.trinidad@bellwethereducation.org. We’d love to hear any solutions or ideas to help students in foster care access school choice options.

Hear from Tilly below about her experience in schools while navigating the foster care system.

This post was inspired by Eight Cities, Bellwether’s 2018 multimedia exploration of large, urban districts achieving significant academic improvement.