Report Local Financial Impact Review: Educational Services for Students in Foster Care and State Care

The report examines the complex set of laws, regulations and funding requirements that have created a confusing system for providing quality education to students in foster care.

Binder organization: Office of the State Auditor Division of Local Mandates
Date published: April 23, 2019

Executive Summary

The education of children in foster care and state care presents an extraordinary challenge to the school systems of Massachusetts. Students transitioned into foster care have been traumatized, taken from the homes they have known, and frequently moved during their time in the programs. To have any measure of academic success, these vulnerable children require high levels of educational and emotional support. Federal law and regulation, along with state law and regulation in the areas of both child welfare and K-12 education, provide a complicated context for the required academic and human services.

Educational success for this vulnerable population is guided by birth families, foster families, child welfare officials, state education administrators, and local school personnel. Competing priorities among these stakeholder groups make this a difficult policy area to describe and one that can lead to less than optimal outcomes. Research from the Division of Local Mandates has a unique perspective on this policy area through its charge to measure the impact of state law and policy on municipalities. This report results from discussions with a wide range of participants in this system. We reflect on issues of school finance, as well as operations related to education and child welfare.

The Commonwealth is in the midst of a major policy discussion regarding how best to update the funding formula for public education. Since the passage of the Education Reform Law in 1993, which helped address the concerns expressed by the Supreme Judicial Court in the McDuffy decision, the Commonwealth has been an active participant in funding local public education. Over time, the funding has increased, but not at the rate of inflation in the provision of educational services. This has led to the Foundation Budget Review Commission recommendations and several proposals to change funding levels and components of the aid formula.

Beyond the Foundation Budget, there are several provisions of law that are not currently funded by the Commonwealth that involve significant expenditures by municipalities, including the provision of educational services for children in foster care. In law, the Commonwealth promises to reimburse school districts for the significant cost of educating students who are originally from outside the community. This component has not been funded for many years. There are also education-related challenges facing children in foster care that are shared by those in the broader school population, including the provision of counseling and mental health services, out-of-district transportation, and the availability of educational records. This report contains a series of findings and recommendations that shine a light on ideas to improve the system, and spark a conversation, leading to better outcomes for these vulnerable children and the communities that care for them.

Below is a summary of our findings and recommendations, with links to each page listed.

Finding 1

Local school districts expend significant resources to fund educational services for students in foster care.

Recommendation

The state should assume the full expense of providing educational services to students in foster care and state care.

Finding 2

School district officials devote considerable time and effort to ensuring that children in foster care are receiving the right educational services.

Recommendations

  1. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) should collaborate on maintaining a dynamic list of students in foster care and their current placements, as well as their schools of origin.
  2. The Commonwealth should implement an electronic backpack for foster care students.
  3. There is a need for resources to support proper education credentialing.

Finding 3

DCF should ensure that its staff is trained and follows the procedures in the DCF/DESE joint guidance from January 2018.

Recommendations

  1. DCF and DESE should jointly provide training to DCF and school district staff on how to collaborate on placement decisions (best-interest determinations) and how student information should flow.
  2. DESE and DCF should encourage the use of Special Education Surrogate or Guardian Ad Litem arrangements for students in foster care.
  3. DCF should encourage proper team “meetings” to make decisions on the special education Individualized Education Plans for students in foster care per guidance.
  4. DCF should provide proper written documentation to districts alerting them to the gain or loss of students.
Finding 4 Proper transportation arrangements are a challenge for districts that must return students to their schools of origin.
Recommendations
  1. The Commonwealth should provide transportation funding for children in foster care.
  2. DCF and DESE should complete the process to provide proper documentation for the Commonwealth to receive reimbursement for transportation expenses under Title IV-E of the Social Security Act.
  3. The legislature and stakeholders should continue the work of the commission examining school transportation operations and funding.
  4. In addition to fully funding required transportation reimbursements, the legislature should consider funding an appropriate number of subject matter experts for DESE to provide substantial technical assistance to districts as they seek to control costs while enhancing service delivery.

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Phone

Fax

(617) 727-3014

Address

Massachusetts State House
Room 230
Boston, MA 02133
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