February 1, 2008
By Dan Lips
As a foster mother to 23 children, Rep. Michelle Bachmann
appreciates the many challenges faced by foster children - and
those who care for them. One big hurdle is education: Whether or
not a child receives a quality education can determine if he or she
gains the skills necessary to become independent after leaving
state care and entering adulthood.
In June, the first-term Republican congresswoman from Minnesota
explained her firsthand knowledge of the unique needs of foster
children in testimony before a House Ways and Means
"We quickly learned that our foster children had very different
needs than most children," she said, noting most of the children in
her care had special needs, were in therapy and had other
behavioral or learning issues. "All of them had switched schools at
least once, and as a result of their tumultuous home lives, none of
them had very strong educational backgrounds."
But the local public school wasn't always able to address her
foster children's specific challenges. "Many times, we got the
impression that the kids were seen by both their peers and their
teachers as if they were only going to be there short-term," Mrs.
"Although their teachers were welcoming, little special attention
was provided to ensure that they caught up to their classmates, and
their other needs were often not considered because there were so
many other students to attend to. They became small fish swimming
in a very large pond. What made this experience so heartbreaking is
we could clearly see that despite our wishes, our foster children
did not get the same opportunities or attention that our biological
children received in their school," she said.
Research confirms that Mrs. Bachmann's experience is the norm.
Judging by all outcome measures, foster children struggle in school
compared to their peers. Foster children on average have lower
scores on standardized tests and higher absenteeism, tardiness,
truancy and dropout rates.
These statistics are understandable when one considers all the
obstacles foster children must overcome. One big problem is
instability. Foster children often face multiple home placements.
In Washington, D.C., for example, 40 percent of foster children
have four or more placements while in care. Changing homes often
means changing schools, and school transfers can cause learning
setbacks, lost records, delayed special education services and loss
of important friendships with teachers and peers.
Sadly, these classroom difficulties are one reason so many foster
children fail to navigate the difficult transition from state care
into independence. Research shows that, compared to the general
population, former foster children are likelier to be homeless,
dependent on state services, convicted of crimes and incarcerated
and see their own children placed in foster care.
In 1999, Congress passed the Chafee Foster Care Independence Act
to help support the transition of foster children into independence
in adulthood. The program increased federal funds for state
programs that help youths transition out of care. It also provided
$60 million in annual funding for education and job training
vouchers for older foster youths.
Unfortunately, for many foster children, this assistance comes too
late. For this reason, Mrs. Bachmann has introduced the "School
Choice for Foster Kids Act," which would amend the Chafee program
to allow states to offer school vouchers to all foster children,
not just older youths.
A younger foster child at risk of falling through the cracks in
school could also benefit from a scholarship. That could give a
foster family the option of keeping a child in the same school even
when the child experiences out-of-home transfers. For others, a
scholarship could give a foster child an opportunity to transfer to
a school that better meets his or her needs.
"Instead of separating foster children from trusted friends and
teachers, we should give them the opportunity to stay at a school
if it is fulfilling their needs," Mrs. Bachmann explained. "We
should also allow families to choose the school that is best
equipped to serve their foster child."
Offering foster children voluntary scholarships is a simple way to
ensure that some of our most at-risk children have a better chance
to succeed in life and attain independence. You don't have to have
mothered 23 foster kids to appreciate that.
Dan Lips is an
education analyst at the Heritage Foundation. In June, he testified
before the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Income and Family
Support about the need to improve educational opportunities for
First appeared in the Washington Times
As a foster mother to 23 children, Rep. Michelle Bachmann appreciates the many challenges faced by foster children — and those who care for them. One big hurdle is education: Whether or not a child receives a quality education can determine if he or she gains the skills necessary to become independent after leaving state care and entering adulthood.
Senior Policy Analyst
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