Anteus Stinson, 22, entered California’s foster care system when he was three. Since then he’s lived in a lot of different places and gone to a lot of different schools.
“I was actually in high school in Merced, Modesto, Stockton and then finally here in San Jose,” Stinson says. “The curriculum kept changing. I never really caught up to the classes, and never really understood. I always just jumped into a class.”
That was the disruptive reality that California’s Foster Youth Services program was meant to end, and now the program is often held up as a model for other states. But Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to give local school districts more control over state revenue would also eliminate the $15 million statewide program, delivering that money and responsibility directly to school districts.
Most foster care students share Stinson’s experience, says Karen Scussel, executive director of Child Advocates of Silicon Valley. That’s why the Legislature established Foster Youth Services in the first place, she says. The program provides counseling and academic support and acts as an advocate for individual kids. The program also makes sure kids’ records follow them from school-to-school.
“In years past, sometimes [foster students] would be out of school for a couple of weeks until records were transferred, until everything was put in place in terms of registering for the new school,” Scussel says. “So Foster Youth Services ensures that those records are transferred. They make sure that the schools understand their obligations, making sure that the foster youth are getting the education that they need and that they deserve.”
Foster Youth Services is one of about 60 categorical programs that will be eliminated under the governor’s plan. But advocates for keeping the program say that without the same infrastructure, foster youth are more likely to be neglected.
“That’s an argument that could be made for any number of categorical programs that we are including into the formula,” says H. D. Palmer, a spokesman with the state Department of Finance. “Broadly speaking the governor believes that it is far better to give greater authority, greater accountability and greater responsibility down to the level that is closest to the students that are being taught. And that’s at the school district level.”
Palmer says that the special status of foster youth is why the Governor added them to the list of students receiving supplemental funding, along with low income students and English learners.
Daniel Heimpel, a long-time advocate for foster youth, is not convinced. He worries school districts are simply not ready to take on the responsibilities previously handled by education offices in each country. Those county offices currently coordinate foster care advocates with the juvenile justice system and other child welfare agencies.
“The likelihood that they’re going to implement a system to make sure they’re keeping track of these kids is very unlikely,” he says. “I’m concerned because you have a 30-year-old program that’s a gold standard in the nation in terms of educating foster youth that only costs $15 million that you’re essentially throwing away.”
But at the San Jose Unified School District, Chief Business Officer Stephen McMahon disagrees.
“We have 32,000 students,” he says. “Is it possible students are lost in the shuffle? Yes. Are we conscious of it? Extremely so. And I think when your mission statement specifically addresses closing the opportunity gap, it ensures that our district specifically is much more focused on the needs of all students, especially the ones who have been traditionally under served. We wouldn’t be doing our job and we wouldn’t be fulfilling our own mission if we lost sight of these students.”
Advocates worry though that not all school districts are as aware of the problem, and that the added flexibility will ultimately be at the expense of the 42,000 children in the state’s foster care system – kids, they say, who already face overwhelming challenges just to survive.