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February 1, 2008

School Choice for Foster Children

By

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 subcommittee.

"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. Bachmann said.

"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 foster children.

First appeared in the Washington Times

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