As families sent their children back to class last month, Education Lab and The Seattle Times reported on the reasons why school districts in Washington spend as much as $31.5 million on transportation for homeless students.
Namely, it’s the law: For more than three decades, the federal government has guaranteed that families experiencing homelessness have the right to keep their children in the last school they attended before losing their housing. And research has found that this stability helps homeless students do better in school.
That’s why educators see value in providing a stable school environment for homeless students, and it’s a right that Congress extended to youth in the foster-care system four years ago.
But most states have struggled to meet that and other new provisions meant to support the roughly 270,000 school-aged youth in foster care, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported Wednesday.
In a national survey of state educational agencies, many “reported challenges, including high turnover among local educational and child welfare agency officials, and with identifying and arranging transportation to school for students,” the GAO found in the report.
The independent, nonpartisan agency did not release responses for individual states, but in Washington, the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction confirmed the findings in the report.
“Staff turnover, both in school districts and in child welfare, is an issue we face,” Peggy Carlson, supervisor of the foster-care program, said in an email. “District liaisons often wear many hats and are responsible for several other programs, so their capacity to implement these provisions is stretched.”
She added that transportation for youth in foster care is often costly: “Rural districts face the additional challenge of fewer resources, so transportation is even more difficult,” Carlson said. “But educational stability is so important.”
The GAO report found that 30 of 50 states struggled to help school districts figure out how to pay for the added costs of transportation for children in foster care. Of those 30 state agencies, 12 said it was “very or extremely challenging.”
Other findings from the report:
- In more than three dozen states, school-district employees who interact with foster youth may not know their responsibilities under the new rules.
- Limited options for transportation created additional obstacles for some school districts, including in rural areas and for younger children. “For example, an Arizona local child welfare official explained that while they can use taxis to support youth, they are not approved for use for children age 6 and younger.”
- Officials in nine of 10 school districts said it’s even difficult to track students in foster care, with seven explaining they have no formal system to know when youths enter or leave care.
Carlson also noted one challenge not included in the report.
“The lack of foster homes,” she said. “If more foster homes were available in each school’s catchment, then transportation would be much easier.”
HuffPost, which first reported on the GAO findings, noted that U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., requested the report.
“The (U.S.) Department of Education must do everything it can to help states ensure every student has the stable education they need to thrive,” Murray said in an email to HuffPost.
“Children in foster care are some of our most vulnerable students, and they should be able to stay with their friends, teachers and counselors at their school even when they move to a new foster care placement,” she added.
Last year, HuffPost and The Hechinger Report in a joint investigation found that one-quarter of states would fail to meet a basic requirement that they start reporting graduation rates for youth in foster care.
Chelsea Keyes, a spokesman for Washington’s superintendent of public instruction, said the state previously published that data on its school-report-card site, but removed the information in September. The superintendent’s office plans to republish it later this month, Keyes said.