Delivered June 19, 2007
The more than 500,000 children currently in foster care are among
the most at-risk children in American society. Research shows that
adults who were formerly in foster care are more likely than the
general population to succumb to poor life outcomes.
- They are more likely to be homeless, unprepared for employment
and limited to low-skill jobs, and dependent on welfare or
- They are also more likely than the general population to
be convicted of crimes and incarcerated, to abuse drugs and
alcohol, or to have poor physical or mental health.
- Research has shown that women who have been in foster care
experience higher rates of early pregnancy and are more likely to
see their own children placed in foster care.
Many of these problems are at least in part a product of
problems in the classroom, where foster children tend to have
lower educational attainment than their peers. Foster children on
average have lower scores on standardized tests and higher
absenteeism, tardiness, truancy, and dropout rates. Overall, a
synthesis of available research evidence published by the
Child Welfare League of America found that "Almost all of the
reviewed studies of those who were in out-of-home care revealed
that the subject's level of educational attainment is below
that of other citizens of comparable age."
This is not surprising when one considers the many problems and
challenges that foster children commonly experience at school.
These common problems include instability, persistent low
expectations, poor adult advocacy on their behalf, inadequate
life-skills training, and a failure to receive needed special
Instability and Low Expectations: Root
Causes of Poor Educational Outcomes
One of the biggest problems foster children face is instability.
Children in long-term foster care often experience multiple
out-of-home placements. For example, here in Washington, D.C., 40
percent of the children in the District's foster care system have
experienced four or more placements.
Out-of-home placements often lead to school transfers since
where one attends school is often tied to where one lives. For
example, the Vera Institute of Justice reports that in New York
City between 1995 and 1999, 42 percent of children changed schools
within 30 days of entering foster care.
Research evidence suggests that frequent school transfers and
disruptions in the learning process can take a toll on a student's
development. For example, a study by the U.S. General Accounting
Office reported that third-grade students who had experienced
frequent school changes were more likely to perform below grade
level in reading and math or to repeat a grade than were students
who had never changed schools.
It is not surprising, therefore, that frequent school transfers
would negatively affect foster children. A research synthesis
reported that former foster children who experienced fewer
out-of-home placements performed better in school and
completed more years of education than did others in foster
care. A survey of former foster children found
that they "strongly believed that they had been shifted around too
much while in foster care, and as a result, they suffered,
especially in terms of education."
It is clear how instability causes problems. School transfers
create gaps in the learning cycle. They force children to adjust to
new classroom settings, teachers, and classmates and cause
children to lose social networks, peer groups, and relationships
with adults--relationships that can be particularly important to
foster care children with tumultuous family lives. These changes
can exacerbate the emotional instability and unrest caused by
the home transfers themselves. Reducing instability for foster
children is identified by researchers and advocates as a way to
improve the foster care system.
In addition to disruptions in their educational environment,
adults formerly in foster care report that the foster system did
not encourage high aspirations for their education. One survey
found that older youth in foster care have high aspirations and
resent others' low expectations. They also reported that they would
have benefited from stronger adult encouragement.
Addressing the Need for Greater
Stability, High Expectations, and Better Educational
There is no single solution to all of the challenges and
problems that foster children face in school and at home. Ideally,
every child in the foster care system would become a part of a
stable, loving, permanent home with adults committed to
nurturing their talents and skills. However, policymakers can
embrace measures to alleviate some of the stresses associated with
foster care that contribute to lower educational attainment and
poor life outcomes.
One promising reform solution would be to provide foster
children with more control and more options for where they attend
school. For example, offering tuition scholarships or school
vouchers to children in foster care would be an important step in
encouraging greater stability in their education-- indeed, in their
lives--and open the door to better educational opportunities for
In 2006, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, signed
legislation to create the nation's first K-12 tuition scholarship
program for foster children. Under this program, approximately 500
foster children will be awarded $5,000 tuition scholarships to
attend private school starting in the fall of 2007.
The Benefits of Providing Scholarships
to Foster Children
A scholarship program for children in foster care like the new
program created in Arizona could provide a number of important
- First, a tuition scholarship could provide foster
children with stability. A scholarship or choice option could
allow a child to remain in the same school (whenever geographically
possible) even when placed in a new home setting. This could
have educational and social benefits. Allowing a child to remain in
the same school could prevent disruptions in the learning
process. Importantly, it would also allow a child to maintain
peer groups, friendships, and important relationships with
- Second, for other children, a tuition scholarship could
allow some children to transfer into schools that offer a better
educational experience. Academic studies have reported that
students participating in school voucher programs have improved
academically compared to their peers who remain in public school.
For example, the school voucher program in Milwaukee has been
subject to two randomized-experiment studies that found that
students who received vouchers through a lottery made academic
gains when compared to their peers who remained in public school.
Similar studies of private school choice programs in Charlotte,
North Carolina, New York City, and Washington, D.C. reached similar
- Third, a tuition scholarship program could allow students to
attend schools that offer specialized services that cater to a
foster child's unique needs. Many schools are unequipped to
offer the specialized services that foster children may need.
Allowing for greater choice could give families the
opportunity to select the most appropriate school for their
child. It could also give schools an incentive to specialize,
innovate, and deliver the specialized education services that
foster children may need, such as counseling, tutoring,
remedial instruction, and life-skills training.
- Fourth, a tuition scholarship program could improve family
satisfaction and involvement in children's education. Most
foster parents are dedicated individuals who want the best for the
children in their care. However, many lack the resources needed to
give that child the education that he or she deserves. They
need and deserve assistance in creating an environment that will
help their child thrive. A school choice program would give foster
parents the ability to provide their children a quality education,
which would likely improve the foster care experience for both
children and parents.
How Congress Can Help Encourage School
Choice for Foster Children
Providing social services and education, of course, is primarily
the responsibility of state and local governments, not the federal
government. Indeed states and localities are beginning to embrace
the idea of school choice for children in foster care.
This idea of providing tuition scholarships is gaining momentum
across the country. In addition to the new program that was created
in Arizona in 2006, other states are considering legislation to
provide school choice scholarships to children in foster care.
In 2007, state legislators in at least four states--Florida,
Maryland, Tennessee, and Texas-- have considered similar
initiatives. The American Legislative Exchange Council has created
model legislation to provide opportunity scholarships to children
in foster care.
However, Congress can take a number of steps to advance this
reform initiative and improve educational opportunities for
children in foster care.
First, Congress should request that the Government
Accountability Office compile research on the frequency of foster
children's school transfers and the need to improve
educational opportunities for children in foster care. The
federal government has the opportunity to work through the
Administration for Children and Families in the Department of
Health and Human Services to study this problem and highlight the
need for reform.
Second, Congress should reform the Chaffee Foster Care
Independence Act to allow states to implement programs to improve
educational opportunities for younger children. The Chaffee
program provides funding grants to states to assist older foster
youth and former foster children in the process of attaining
independence in adulthood. For example, through the program, states
can award "education and training vouchers" to older youths (age 16
and older) who are aging out of the foster care system.
However, the education aid offered by the Chafee Foster Care
Independence Act may come too late in many cases because it targets
foster children 16 years old and older. Foster children throughout
the K-12 education system have a number of unique needs. Providing
education choice and flexibility to younger students could
provide them with a more solid educational foundation, helping them
to achieve academic success, social stability, and adult
Congress should give states the flexibility to use funds allocated
through the Chaffee Foster Care Independence Program to promote
K-12 education options for younger children in foster care if state
policymakers believe that this would be the best use of funds to
prepare foster children for independence in adulthood.
Third, since the federal government has oversight over
the District of Columbia, Congress should provide opportunity
scholarships to foster children in Washington, D.C. In
2004, Congress created a school voucher program for low-income
students in Washington, D.C. This program has proven very popular
with parents. All of the program's 1,800 scholarships are currently
subscribed; and, in all, 6,500 children have applied for
scholarships. A recent evaluation of the program conducted by
Georgetown University researchers found that the parents of
participating students were very satisfied with their children's
experience in the program and have become more involved in their
There is good reason to believe that many more children would
benefit from opportunity scholarships, including the
approximately 1,800 school-age children in foster care living in
Washington, D.C. Congress should expand the existing
Opportunity Scholarship program to allow more children to
participate, and it should expand the eligibility requirements to
ensure that all foster children can participate. As an alternative,
Congress could create a new program that specifically focuses on
providing opportunity scholarships for children in foster care
in Washington, D.C.
It is clear that giving foster children the ability to attend a
safe and high-quality school of choice will not address all of the
problems they face, but it can give some of the most at-risk
children in our society a chance for a better life.
Consider the words of Lisa Dickson, a former foster child, who
graduated from high school and went on to succeed in college and
graduate school. Ms. Dickson, now an advocate for foster children,
wrote an essay, "What the Arizona Foster Voucher Program Would Have
Meant to Me":
As I look back on my experience in foster care, educational
vouchers would have benefited me if they had made it possible for
me to attend one high school, rather than five. I don't know that I
would have chosen a private school, rather than a public one. I do
know that I never received college preparatory counseling at
any of the high schools I attended. I also know that having one
teacher and one textbook, and perhaps also some individualized
tutoring, would have helped me to master algebra. There was no
individualized educational attention given, at home or at school,
to any of the teenagers from the group homes where I resided. No
special tutoring was made available to foster youth who were
failing their classes.
Since foster children are charges of the state, they are, in a
sense, all of our children. We should not be satisfied until every
child in foster care has the opportunity to have a stable and
high-quality education that prepares him or her to succeed in
life. I believe creating a voluntary, school choice
scholarship program for children in foster care is a
promising step toward accomplishing this important goal.
Dan Lips is Education Analyst
at The Heritage Foundation. These remarks were delivered in
testimony before the Subcommittee on Income Security and
Family Support of the House Committee on Ways and Means.
a summary of the risk factors facing children in foster care, see
Thomas P. McDonald, Reva I. Allen, Alex Westerfelt, and Irving
Piliavin, Assessing the Long-Term Effects of Foster Care: A
Research Synthesis (Washington, D.C.: Child Welfare League of
Institute of Justice, "Foster Children and Education: How You Can
Create a Positive Educational Experience for the Foster Child,"
July 2004, p. 2, at www.vera.org/publication_pdf/241_452.pdf (October
McDonald et al., Assessing the
Long-Term Effects of Foster Care, p. 135.
Trudy Festinger, No One Ever Asked Us--A
Postscript to Foster Care (New York: Columbia University Press,
1983), cited in Patrick A. Curtis, Grady Dale Jr., and Joshua C.
Kendall, eds., The Foster Care Crisis: Translating Research into
Policy and Practice (Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska
Press, 1999), p. 109.
Institute of Justice, "Foster Children and Education."
P. Greene, Education Myths (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and
Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), pp. 150-154.
Stephen Q. Cornman, Esq., Thomas Stewart, Ph.D., and Patrick J.
Wolf, Ph.D., The Evolution of School Choice Consumers: Parent
and Student Voices on the Second Year of the D.C. Opportunity
Scholarship Program, Georgetown University School Choice
Demonstration Project, May 2007, at www.washingtonscholarshipfund.org/PDF/gtownstudy.pdf (October
Lisa Dickson, "What the Arizona Foster
Voucher Program Would Have Meant to Me," Edspresso.com,
August 15, 2006.