August 11 2010
Vicki E. Alger
May was National Foster Care month, intended to raise awareness about the hundreds of thousands of children and youth in the foster-care system. The foster-care youth population is widely considered among the most at-risk. Children and youth in the foster-care system face general instability, which is compounded by the negative effects of frequent school changes, as well special educational needs that often go unmet. There is also broad consensus that finding permanent, loving homes for foster-care children improves their chances for success in school and life, but that states' and families' budgetary pressures may be dampening prospective adoptions. A leading concern among prospective adoptive parents is being unable to provide a quality education for their children and having no say in their children's future.
Adopting a Florida-style scholarship program for students in foster-care could help alleviate these concerns of parents and address some of the challenges that children face while in foster-care.
In Florida, parents of at-risk students, including students in foster care, are allowed to use scholarships to send their children to private schools. Research has found that participating Florida students have improved academically, and that the public-school system's overall performance has also improved. Official government analyses find that state and public school districts have saved money as a result of school-choice programs for at-risk students. And, in just over a decade, Florida has turned a fourth-grade reading deficit on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) of five points or more among the most disadvantaged student populations compared to the national average into gains equivalent to three full grade levels.
There is a significant body of research showing that under the current public-schooling system, which is heavily bureaucratic and virtually devoid of incentives to be cost-effective, increased spending would have a marginal impact at best on student achievement. Even if there were a direct relationship between additional spending and improved student achievement, the cost would be prohibitive. Under the current system, it would require an estimated $394 million in additional spending on traditional interventions for states to achieve Florida's current fourth-grade NAEP reading performance just among their school-age foster-care student population.
A Florida-style scholarship program for students in foster care, however, could achieve comparable results without the additional cost. Such a program could also encourage adoptions by empowering foster and adoptive parents when it comes to their children's education, as well as improve school stability and the provision of specialized education services for foster-care students within current appropriation levels. Adopting a Florida-style foster-care scholarship program is an academically and fiscally responsible education reform.