The Los Angeles Times reports that state universities are giving more attention to the academic, financial, and housing needs former foster youth. This is good news since only about 10 percent of former foster-care youth attend college, and less than 3 percent earn a bachelor’s degrees.

While financial aid covers their college expenses, students formerly in the foster-care system have trouble meeting four-year college requirements in part because of frequent placements that result in disruptions to their elementary and high school education.

A new law in California aims to make college housing more permanent for these students. “The fact is that foster youth are, in effect, children of the state and we are not good parents once they are 18,” said Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner (D-Berkeley), author of the university housing law. But California should focus on improving education opportunities and permanency for students in foster care much sooner.

California has the largest foster-care population in the country, with approximately 73,000 children and youth in the state’s system at any given time. The educational outcomes of this population are not encouraging. A full 75 percent function below their grade level, and 83 percent are held back by grade three. Between 33 percent and 50 percent require special education. And almost half become high-school dropouts.

A leading concern among potential adoptive parents is being unable to provide for a child’s education. Two states offer model programs that could make California a national leader when it comes to the education of students in foster care.

Arizona enacted the country’s first opportunity scholarship program for students in foster care in 2006. Called Lexie’s Law, the program currently offers 350 students scholarships averaging just over $4,100 to attend the public or private school of their choice. Florida has several programs for students who are low-income, have special needs, are assigned to failing public schools, and as of 2008 are in foster care. Combined, these programs are helping more than 50,000 Florida students attend schools that are best for them with scholarships averaging less than $4,000 for regular education students, and less than. $7,000 for students with special needs

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 California and the country, into gains equivalent to three full grades within current appropriation levels. In fact, official government analyses found that for every dollar spent just on non-special education scholarships Florida gains $1.49 in education funding.

Under California’s current public-schooling system it would require up to $145 million in additional spending just for foster-care students to achieve similar gains-although experts doubt more money in the state’s current government-run school system would improve things much. (See pp. 4-5) A California Foster-Care Scholarship Program could achieve comparable results without the additional cost. In fact, the Legislative Analyst’s Office found that a Florida-style scholarship program for students in foster care would have no negative impact to state and public-school budgets, and would likely generate savings for both. (See p. 2)

Helping foster youth succeed in college and life begins with better education options today.