Tia was 9 when her foster mother died from cancer, forcing her to move to a new foster home and new school. Her upheaval was compounded by federal privacy laws, which blocked the timely transfer of her school records. She was forced to repeat the entire fourth grade, even though she had only been one month shy of completing it.
Tia now works for a foster youth mentoring program and sees similar scenarios every day with lost records, delays in transfers and other bureaucratic obstacles resulting in foster youth falling further behind. Yet education is the key to social mobility and economic security.
Studies show more than two thirds of students in foster care are forced to change schools more than six times between kindergarten and 12th grade. Such instability contributes to about half of foster youth never receiving a diploma -- a dismal statistic. As we begin a new year, a bill to be signed into law this week by President Barack Obama will make progress in improving the educational outcomes of foster youth.
The Uninterrupted Scholars Act is the first major piece of legislation passed through the efforts of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth, founded and co-chaired by a co-author here, U.S. Rep. Karen Bass. After hearing the concerns of stakeholders across the country, she built a bipartisan alliance in the House and Senate to pass it.
This law amends an unintended consequence of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy
Congress' agreement on this vital issue is a pleasant change from the usual partisan bickering. The new law will work with efforts in California to help foster youth turn their dreams into degrees. For example, the John Burton Foundation recently took the lead on a statewide initiative called California College Pathways, which builds on years of work to create a support system for foster youth during their often fitful transition to adulthood.
As a result of the efforts of partners across the state, there are now campus support programs for former foster youth at every level of postsecondary education providing financial aid, housing, academic support, counseling and peer mentoring. Foster youth scholars who participate in these programs are three times more likely to persist in college than foster youth nationwide.
But we are aware of the educational challenges children in foster care face before they ever get a shot at college, which is why the Uninterrupted Scholars Act is the next logical step in a growing list of legislative and practical improvements to the educational opportunities of foster youth.
The Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth will continue to work alongside organizations like the John Burton Foundation to develop transformative reform legislation. Leveling the educational playing field for students like Tia will unlock more potential than we can imagine.
John Burton, a former state senator, is chairman of the California Democratic Party and founder and chairman of the John Burton Foundation for Children Without Homes. U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-37th District, is the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Foster Youth. They wrote this for this newspaper.