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Foster Better Education with Choice for Foster Children

February 5, 2015 - 12:31pm CST

If Oklahoma is going to adopt sweeping reforms to serve foster children better, it shouldn’t just think about homes. It should think about schools. As state policymakers scrounge to find $150 million to implement a proposed plan to reform the foster care system, they should also implement a policy which would actually save money. By doing so, they could revolutionize life for some of Oklahoma’s most vulnerable children.

Oklahoma has a big mess on its hands in its foster care system, with high abuse rates and nobody, seemingly, minding the store. As legislators and policymakers work to implement reforms, they should consider a proven way to protect vulnerable children from abuse in schools—give them school choice.

Court-appointed monitors recently found more than a thousand overdue child abuse and neglect investigations languishing in the Oklahoma foster care system. It would be bad enough to think that there might be a thousand children out there, waiting day after day in abusive situations for state bureaucrats who are too busy to rescue them. But it gets worse. Oklahoma only serves about 12,000 foster children, so a thousand delinquent investigations means the state might be placing children in abusive situations as often as one-twelfth of the time. How would you like to try those odds if these were your children?

Those court-appointed monitors are in place because the state is resolving a huge class-action lawsuit against the foster care system. When the legislative and executive branches fumble an issue so badly that the courts take over and try to do jobs they’re not designed or equipped to do, everybody loses. Oklahoma should look for legislative solutions that protect vulnerable children.

As they do, they should consider that homes are not the only places where children are abused. Children are abused in schools. Children who are known to be vulnerable, like foster children, are often singled out and targeted.

Fortunately, there’s a reliable way to protect children from abuse in schools. It’s got a solid track record of success. And as state legislators scrounge to find $150 million to implement a proposed plan to reform the foster care system, they might note that this policy doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime.

School choice is not just about the quality of education. It does deliver a superior education, but it does much more. It gives families the power to exit abusive situations in schools. They can take action to protect themselves without waiting for lethargic bureaucracies, or school systems whose disciplinary processes are tied down by teachers’ unions and fear of lawsuits.

Consider how school choice has already been found to protect an even more vulnerable population—special-education students—from abuse. With my colleague Jay Greene, I conducted a study of Florida’s McKay Scholarship Program, which provides school vouchers to special-education students. The program currently serves 27,000 students. Greene and I conducted our study in 2003, surveying a large random sample of participating families.

We found some truly stunning results. We asked parents of McKay students if their children had been abused in public schools. A shocking 47 percent said their children were bothered often and 25 percent said their children had been physically assaulted in their public schools. By contrast, only 5 percent were bothered often and 6 percent had been assaulted in the private schools they chose through the program.

The same study points to how school choice can have particular benefits for students who struggle with socialization and appropriate behavior—a common enough problem both for special education students and foster children. We asked McKay families about how the change from an assigned school to a choice school affected behavior problems. While 40 percent said their children had behavior problems in public school, only 19 percent reported behavior problems in private school.

If the program had only protected the students who were using it at the time we conducted our study, that would be an important benefit. However, we wanted to know whether there were other students out there who had tried the program and found it hadn’t helped them. So we also surveyed former McKay participants—families that had participated in the program the previous year, but now were no longer participating. We found almost the same results with those families, strengthening the positive finding for the program.

There would be no need to create a new program to provide school choice to foster children. Oklahoma already has two school choice programs: a special-needs voucher modeled on McKay, and a tax-credit scholarship program serving low-income students. Either or both of these programs could accommodate foster children with a slight modification—just write a line into the law saying foster children are eligible regardless of disability status or family income. 

Other states have already adopted this practice. Foster children are automatically eligible for two school choice programs in Arizona. “Lexie’s Law,” which is Arizona’s answer to McKay, includes foster children alongside special-education students. So does Arizona’s innovative new education savings account law, which gives foster parents control of children’s education funding to direct to a school of their choice. Meanwhile, in Florida, foster children of any income level are eligible for the state’s tax-credit scholarship program for low-income students.

Including foster children in school choice programs wouldn’t increase state costs a bit; in fact, it would save money. Because private schools are more efficient, they deliver a superior education at a lower cost. That means every time a student uses school choice, the public system’s costs go down by more than enough to make up for the amount spent on the choice program. A new Friedman Foundation study by Jeff Spalding finds that school choice saved more than $1.7 billion in the 20 years following the creation of the first modern choice program, in Milwaukee in 1990.

Make no mistake. The only policy that will give us the educational revolution we need is universal choice. All children should have access to choice as a matter of basic concern for their well-being. There’s no reason children should have to suffer a calamity like a disability or orphanhood before we extend them this cost-free opportunity for a better life. And we won’t see educational entrepreneurship take off until there are enough students eligible for choice.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. Nobody knows it better than Oklahoma’s foster children. If Oklahoma is going to adopt sweeping reforms to serve these children better, it shouldn’t just think about homes. It should think about schools. Having failed to care for these 12,000 children when they needed it most, Oklahoma owes them something. With a single line of text in a new law, it could revolutionize life for some of its most vulnerable students.