Teenager Makenzie Snyder of Bowie set an example for how we should treat foster children.
At age 8, she founded Children to Children, a charity with the mission of giving foster children a backpack to carry their belongings and a stuffed animal to love. "It made me feel really bad when I heard that they had to carry their stuff in trash bags," Makenzie told ABC News in an interview two years ago. "I had to do something about this." So far, Children to Children has given 38,000 backpacks to foster children nationwide.
This inspiring teen has done more to touch the lives of strangers than most people do their entire lives. But Makenzie's backpacks fix only one of the many challenges facing foster care children. The estimated 523,000 foster children in the United States - 11,500 of whom live in Maryland - face numerous obstacles and are at heightened risk of poor life outcomes.
Research paints a gloomy picture of foster children's prospects. Adults formerly in foster care are more likely to be homeless, incarcerated and dependent on state services. They are also more susceptible to drug and alcohol abuse and poor physical or mental health. There's even evidence to suggest that foster care is a generational cycle: Young women in foster care are more likely to have early pregnancies and place their own children into the foster system.
Early evidence of these looming problems can be found in the classroom, where foster children are far behind their peers. For example, the National Conference of State Legislators reports that foster children exhibit "high rates of grade retention; lower scores on standardized tests; and higher absenteeism, tardiness, truancy and dropout rates."
Policymakers need to develop education policies that provide better opportunities to address the achievement gap for foster care children. One way to do that would be to create a school voucher program for foster children.
Life in the foster care system is often unstable because frequent out-of-home placements are the norm for many children. Such changes exact an emotional toll and cause disruptions in schooling. The U.S. Education Department estimates that students lose four to six months each time they transfer schools. It's no wonder that children in long-term foster care who switch homes and schools numerous times often quickly fall behind.
Giving foster children vouchers to choose their school could help give them a chance to stay in a high-quality school for the duration even when their home base changes. A school voucher could purchase both an excellent education and a sense of belonging for a child who is facing so many hurdles. Staying in the same high-quality school year after year would allow children to build long-term friendships and peer groups.
Adults formerly in foster care have been surveyed about their experiences and the problems with the system. They lament years of low expectations when few teachers, guidance counselors or others expected them to succeed. They also identify a lack of autonomy and stability as a common problem that caused academic and social difficulty. School transfers often meant the end of important friendships with peers -relationships that are particularly critical for children who lack strong family ties.
In addition to providing stability, a scholarship or voucher would help prevent foster children from getting lost in the paper trail of the child welfare and school systems. School officials would be more likely to take an active interest in the well-being of a child who is permanently in a school system. An $8,000 voucher also would give schools an incentive to provide quality services to the foster child since he or she would have the ability to transfer to other schools to find better opportunities.
Lawmakers would need to build checks and balances into this system to ensure that foster children would be well served. For example, since these children are minors and at times have no clear guardian, picking a school could be a joint decision by the foster child and his or her current guardians and must be approved by legal caseworkers.
Makenzie Snyder has set an important example by reminding us all of our need to support the lives of foster children. Maryland lawmakers can follow her example by creating a first-in-the-nation school choice program for foster children and providing better opportunities for the most at-risk children in our community.
Dan Lips is an education policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based public policy research institute.
First appeared in The Baltimore Sun