No good deed goes unpunished for foster youth.
In the interest of good relations between the legislative and executive branches of our state government, I’ve attempted to give the outgoing Gregoire Administration and the incoming Inslee Administration some breathing room before resuming my public discussion of many of the serious systemic issues raised by our state’s weak IT oversight and other important operational challenges. I have, as you can imagine, continued my battles internally and quietly with varying degrees of success but I’ve tried to be a bit less vocal as the new governor has settled in.
As chair of the House Finance Committee I spend my time on large scale issues of budget, taxes, financial strategy and fiscal legislation. Occasionally, however, I am forcefully reminded why my frustration level regarding IT spending, executive agency operations and other issues rarely wanes.
And sometimes the public needs visibility into the inner workings of the inside game.
This summer and fall I worked with foster youth advocates to design legislation for 2013 to better connect schools, Children’s Administration, Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and outside service and advocacy organizations such as Treehouse, Mockingbird Society, College Success Foundation and others to help more foster youth graduate high school. I approached the Children’s Administration for help early on by sending a first working draft of the bill to senior agency officials, but they choose not to engage or respond substantively to my proactive outreach. As the session progressed, I waited for a response to House Bill 1566.
Recently a ‘fiscal note’–a document prepared by agencies and the Office of Financial Management–reported a need for $150,000 to upgrade the Children’s Administration’s computer system in order to implement the legislation I drafted tracking and supporting the educational outcomes of foster youth.
As you can imagine, I looked closer.
The agency effectively uploads the data from excel, meaning that they are asking for $150,000 to make adjustments to the state system consisting of uploads of three to five additional columns of data. How is it even possible for a modest amount of incremental data from an excel spreadsheet uploaded to the state’s computer system to cost government $150,000? The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t, but the agencies are used to the IT portion of fiscal notes being approved without much technical rigor so its a good bucket to throw random costs in.
The Legislature is not required to fund every request in a fiscal note but it makes it more difficult to secure political support when your proposed legislation carries the perception of a large price tag.
And here our troubles began.
Another section of the bill–requiring schools to proactively meet with foster youth in an effort to more aggressively avoid drop outs (our current high school graduation rate is 46% for foster youth, up from 32% in 2003 but still far below the 76% graduation rate of traditional students)–was a total and complete disaster.
OSPI and OFM apparently decided that improved educational support (there are none today so improved is a generous term) for foster youth services is so new, untested and radical that my little bill should pay the entire cost of the existing institutional infrastructure of support services in schools and within the agency, so they wrote a fiscal note for the state’s 6,434 foster youth in school that sent an unmistakable message.
Here’s the actual language from the fiscal note: “Assuming “proactively support” means meeting with a dependent student weekly to assure the student doesn’t fall behind, and asssuming each meeting takes one-hour; the cost per student per year for meetings with one certificated staff would be approximately $2,700 (36 meetings * $76/hr = $2,733). There were 6,434 dependent students enrolled in public K-12 schools in 2011-12.”
I’ll do the math for you: $17,584,122. All for the adults. Not a penny for the kids in foster care.
According to OSPI, $17.5 million in new costs to local school districts to attempt to motivate our educational system and Children’s Administration to focus on improving the 46% high school graduation rate of foster youth. But the story behind the story is that the Gregoire Children’s Administration leadership opposed my policy vision that they should have a formal role in ensuring their kids graduate from high school. Their job, they argued, is health and safety not education.
Still, Democrat or Republican, urban or rural, government critic or defender, it’s hard not to shake your head in resentment at an institutional infrastructure of government that wants to get paid $17.5 million incremental dollars to do their day job. There are about 450 foster youth who age out of the system each year, so the actual number of students that need hands-on wrap around services is substantially smaller than the entire base of students in out-of-home care statewide.
Eventually the agencies redrafted the fiscal note partially downward, but I barely had time to get the bill out of the Appropriations Committee before a critical deadline due to the confusion it caused and the legitimate angst of fellow legislators wondering what I had hidden in the bill.
No matter how powerful, respected or influential you are as a legislator or a governor, when you promote new policies that the system doesn’t support, it has a way of sending signals respectfully suggesting you get back in line. I wonder how long it’s going to take Governor Inslee to discover this little secret.
For foster youth, no good deed seems to go unpunished.
We are so much more than what we’ve become.
Your partner in service,