Ariz. Tries New Approach for Foster Kids

Opponents of school choice excel at finding reasons to deny disadvantaged children expanded educational opportunities. But even the fiercest partisan may shy from blocking the latest school choice proposal.

Arizona lawmakers have proposed an opportunity scholarship program for the state’s 7,000 or so foster children. The plan would offer $5,000 scholarships to children in foster care to attend a school selected by their guardians. The measure passed the Arizona House of Representatives last week and awaits consideration in the Senate.

This targeted school choice plan would benefit some of the most at-risk children in Arizona. Adults formerly in foster care are more likely to be homeless, incarcerated, and dependent on state services. They’re also more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol and to have poor physical and mental health. Girls in foster care are more likely to have early pregnancies and see their own children enter the foster system.

Early warning signs of these problems are found in the classroom, where foster children lag behind their peers. The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that foster children exhibit "high rates of grade retention, lower scores on standardized tests; and higher absenteeism, tardiness, truancy and dropout rates." The American School Board Journal reports that "foster children often repeat a grade and are twice as likely as the rest of the population to drop out before graduation."

Too often, schools are part of the problem. Low expectations at school play a role. One survey of older youth in foster care conducted found that foster children "have high educational aspirations" and "resent the fact that more is not expected of them."

Another problem is instability. About half of all foster children spend at least one year in the foster system, and 20 percent remain there for more than three years. Frequent out-of-home placements lead to regular school transfers, learning disruptions, and emotional insecurity. One survey of adults formerly in foster case found that they "strongly believed they had been shifted around too much while in care, and as a result, they suffered, especially in terms of education."

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that students lose 4 to 6 months of progress each time they transfer to a different school. Not surprisingly, researchers studying foster children’s educational attainment have found that frequent school transfers cause serious setbacks. No less devastating, school transfers mean breaking off friendships with fellow students-relationships that are critical to children without strong family ties.

As a response to these problems, scholarships make a lot of sense. For a foster child, a scholarship could provide critical stability, allowing him or her to stay in the same school even when switching homes. And a scholarship could provide access to a better learning environment than may be available in the local public school.

Research of existing school choice programs suggests that students benefit from the new options that choice allows. School choice leads to higher family satisfaction, improved academic achievement, and higher rates of parental involvement. According to Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas, students in the Milwaukee voucher program are about twice as likely to graduate from high school as their public school peers. Dozens of studies confirm that school choice benefits participating children.

With so much upside, what’s the risk of a new voucher program for foster children? Critics will find it hard to come up with a downside: Arizona’s scholarship program for foster children would be voluntary. Children who are happy with their current schools would not be affected. The program would just provide new options for some of the state’s most vulnerable children who are ill served by the current system. The strange politics of education aside, this seems uncontroversial-or at least, it should be.

Potential critics should remember that foster children are charges of the state, relying on the state for opportunities their families could not offer. And for too long, state directed education has failed them. After decades of learning what doesn’t work in foster child education, Arizona is poised to try a new approach. Do anti-choice stalwarts really want to stand in the way of that?