WASHINGTON — Foster care advocates are pushing to restart stalled legislation that aims to make it easier for foster children to remain in their current schools as they move from home to home.
Yet legislation dealing with the issue, including bills from Michele Bachmann and Al Franken, continues to get bumped further and further down the road and now seems unlikely to be considered before Congress reconvenes in early 2011.
“Place is very important in the life of the child,” said Bachmann, who has fostered 23 children with her husband Marcus in addition to raising five biological children. Though foster children may move around from house to house, school continuity is imperative so that teachers, counselors and social workers remain a constant thread in the child’s life.
“A child needs to know that at least one person is crazy about them,” she told activists last week. “We want them to have a sense of stability, and that means that if they can stay at one school and it works for them… we want them to have that option.”
Bachmann’s legislation would allow for the federal government to reimburse the costs of transporting children from their new houses to their old schools. It would also provide federally funded school vouchers if that former school was a private or parochial school. The bill has been stuck in committee since April 2009.
Currently, a child can be kept in their same school it it’s determined to be in their best interest. Sen. Franken has introduced legislation emphasizing that a child shouldn’t be moved unless the move is determined to be in their best interest, a small but clear distinction that his aides say effectively changes the default setting from move to stay. That bill too has been stuck in committee since November 2009 and, like Bachmann’s, there are no plans to bring it up this session.
In April, Eagan native Kayla VanDyke told the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee that she’d missed entire content sections from switching between 10 schools in her youth. Though she desperately wanted continuity, she like many foster children was afraid to ask for it.
“It goes back to emotional stability, you’re in a new home, you don’t know these people they’ve already made accommodations for you, you feel like a burden so when you go out of your way to ask for accommodation you feel like even more of a burden,” she explained. “Especially when you’re used to moving a lot, you want to make a good impression, you don’t want to seem like a burden.”
Last week, the harrowing testimony came from Pennsylvanian Christina Miranda, who attended three different elementary schools, three middle schools and four high schools between ages 5 and 18. The last time she felt like she was at home was at age 12.
She had been in one foster home for more than two years. It was the first and only time she actually unpacked her suitcases and put clothes in drawers. She had posters on the wall and a best friend with whom she spent every available minute. And she was doing well in school.
“I remember getting tests back with simley faces on them — I’m getting A’s and that’s how it’s supposed to be.”
One day, a counselor pulled her out of class. Miranda was told she’d be moving to another house and another school. “When?” she asked. “In about three hours,” came the reply.
“I didn’t feel like I deserved to have a best friend or get smiley faces on my tests,” Miranda recalled.
“I remember my teacher, after I moved, asked me, ‘Christina, four ducks times five ducks is how many ducks?’ I thought, ‘I don’t care how many ducks. Those ducks aren’t going to bring my family back or my life back.”
Some 8,400 youths in Minnesota are in foster care in Minnesota, and for them school began this year as it did last year (and the year before that and the year before that) with VanDyke and Miranda’s concerns unanswered.
Originally, the plan was that this school year would be the last without some form of reform legislation for foster care. But that’s no longer the case.
Rather than do each bit individually, lawmakers have said they’re most likely to consider the issue as part of the giant multi-year education reauthorization bill.
Rep. John Kline is the ranking Republican on the committee that will consider the education omnibus in the House. He said in April her testimony would be specifically considered when that measure comes up. Sen. Tom Harkin promised that school preference and money for transportation (essentially the Franken bill and half of the Bachmann bill) would be included in some form in the education reauthorization.
Trouble is, that bill has now been pushed off the agenda (as have all remaining multi-year reauthorizations), as leadership struggles to find a way to fit in votes on campaign finance, extentions for most or all of the Bush tax cuts and appropriations for the coming year — none of which will come up before the new fiscal year begins in October.
So now the earliest point of consideration for foster school continuity is early 2011 in a bill that may not get passed until 2012. At that point, another year of school will have come and gone.