Washington state has been struggling to reform our public education system. Currently, the McCleary decision is on the minds of many. The McCleary decision is a ruling made by the State Supreme Court that addresses the funding for Washington’s K-12 public education programs. This funding is meant to improve the public education system by reducing class sizes in kindergarten through third grade and expanding basic state-funded education. It is important to note that this is the Court’s fourth attempt to tackle this issue since 1977.
The importance of public education is reflected in Washington’s constitution, which states: “It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste or sex.”
Although basic reforms are important, our state should not forget about the needs of our most vulnerable youth and young adults in the public education system, including those who experience foster care and homelessness. Many foster and homeless youth have barriers that are unique in comparison to their peers and that may prevent them from receiving quality education.
Youth who experience foster care battle school continuity because they are often forced to relocate many times. According to a 2013 study, there were 5,000 schoolaged children in foster care in Washington. Another study in 2014 found that every time a child moves schools, he or she falls four to six months behind their peers in terms of academic achievement. This is especially startling when you consider that a youth moves a minimum of three times on average during their time in foster care. The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act is meant to address the issue of school continuity in each state, but in Washington it is not adequately funded.
Other statistics show that foster youth in Washington have a high school graduation rate of 36.6 percent, compared to 76 percent among their peers who are not in care. In addition, they have a 41.6 percent dropout rate, compared to a 13 percent rate among all other students.
Homeless youth struggle to overcome many barriers that are similar to those that foster youth face. Approximately one in every 34 students in the state of Washington is homeless. In the 2011-2012 school year, only about one third of homeless students were proficient in math, and a little less than half of those students were proficient in reading. Over 2,200 students who identified as homeless in 2013 failed to graduate on time in Washington. Some other barriers faced by homeless youth include a lack of access to school supplies, hunger, insufficient hygiene, and struggles to achieve normalcy. Very few youth want to go to school if they feel that they will be made fun of or stand out as a homeless youth. In addition, youth who go to school hungry are less likely to succeed in comparison to their peers.
A quote from a brief filed in the McCleary case sums it up best: “It is not solely the adverse childhood experiences of a foster child that limits his or her academic opportunities, but it is also the malfunctioning of the foster care system.” This statement illustrates, in my opinion, that it is not just the duty of the public school system to combat these issues. We need more cross-systems collaboration in our communities to meet the needs of the most vulnerable youth in Washington state.