A plan to expand educational options for an especially disadvantaged class of students is moving forward in Maryland.
Introduced in February by state Del. Nancy Stockdale (R-Westminster), House Bill 1002 would provide scholarships to foster children to attend the school of their foster parents’ choice. At press time, the bill had yet to be heard before a legislative committee.
Research consistently shows foster children have lower standardized test scores than other children and are more likely to repeat grades and drop out of school before graduation.
“There is widespread agreement that reforms need to be made to improve education for children in foster care,” said Dan Lips, a senior fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute (MPPI).
H.B. 1002 is based on the idea proposed in Lips’ 2005 report, “School Choice for Maryland’s Foster Children: Fostering Stability, Satisfaction, and Achievement.” MPPI won a $25,000 grant from the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation in May 2006 for its innovative proposal.
Last August, MPPI sponsored a focus group of foster parents and former foster children in Baltimore to discern their educational challenges and expectations. Most participants said the best schools protect foster kids’ privacy while providing needed services, but that a “quality education” was not currently available to them.
MPPI President Christopher Summers said one participant had attended 13 schools in nine years. Frequent changes in school environment are common for foster children.
“Having a good learning environment is a key for [foster children] to get out of that bad situation and become successful people,” Summers said.
Foster parents in the focus group strongly favored vouchers or scholarships that would enable them to enroll their wards in suitable private schools, as long as transportation and special services were available. H.B. 1002 requires counties to offer school transportation services to participating students.
Lips said the foster program would overcome some of the standard objections to vouchers, including the argument that only more affluent and privileged kids benefit from expanded choice.
“It also knocks down the myth that vouchers would drain resources from the public school system, because we’re talking about a small percentage of students,” Lips said.
Lips’ study estimated 11,500 foster children live in Maryland, including 7,000 in Baltimore alone. A 2006 report from the Maryland State Department of Education counted more than 850,000 pupils in the state’s K-12 school system, making foster school children about 1 percent of the student population.
In 2006, Arizona became the first state to provide vouchers for children in foster care, making available 500 scholarships of $5,000 each through the Displaced Pupils Choice Grant Program. The Maryland proposal was introduced with no cap on the number of participants and would cover either the county’s current per-pupil cost or the actual operating, capital, and special services costs of the receiving school, whichever is less.
While Summers is pleased to see his organization’s idea take root in the Southwest, “It’s even more gratifying to have it introduced in our home state,” he said.
Lips said foster children’s needs should overcome standard partisan divisions in whichever state such proposals may be presented.
“I think this is one time where policymakers from the right and the left can recognize these most at-risk children need more options for a better education,” Lips said.
“Every state has this problem, they all have children in foster care,” Summers said. “Building stability in their learning environment is what’s going to put them on a quality track for their lives.”
Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.
For more information …
“School Choice for Maryland’s Foster Children: Fostering Stability, Satisfaction, and Achievement,” written by Dan Lips, and published in October 2005 by the Maryland Public Policy Institute, is available through PolicyBot™, The Heartland Institute’s free online research database. Point your Web browser to http://www.policybot.org and search for document #17989.
“Foster Care Families, Children, and Education,” published in November 2006 by the Maryland Public Policy Institute, is also available through PolicyBot™. Search for document #20770.