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Excerpted from: Marja K. Plater, In Spite of the Odds: Achieving Educational Stability for Maryland's African American Foster Youth, 39 Children's Legal Rights Journal 88 (2019) (122 Footnotes) (Full Document)

MarjaKPlaterAccess to appropriate public education in the United States has been an ongoing societal issue since its inception. The inherent racial inequalities in public education have been brought to light repeatedly over the years and are highlighted in Brown v. Board of Education. The policy shift in viewing education as a civil right, and thus an issue of social justice, is a recent one in the history of public education in the United States. While education is not an established fundamental right under the Constitution, there are legal theories that support its designation as one. Furthermore, viewing education as a civil right would require that all children be provided an opportunity to access education and be given the tools to succeed within the education system, including foster children, who are arguably the most vulnerable population of youth. Within this extremely vulnerable population, African American foster youth remain the most at-risk for experiencing poor educational outcomes. The purpose of this article is to provide an overview of the recent federal laws that establish guidelines for the educational stability of foster youth: the Fostering Connections Act of 2008 (“Fostering Connections Act” or “FCA”) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”). Additionally, this article analyzes Maryland's implementation of the educational stability requirements of the Fostering Connections Act and ESSA and its potential effect on improving outcomes for Maryland's African American foster youth.

Racial inequality for African Americans is a persistent and pervasive problem in America that permeates many areas of society, including education. African American foster youth are not only members of a racial group that faces systemic discrimination and prejudice; they are also part of a class of extremely marginalized children. This article undertakes an analysis of the application of the federal laws addressing educational stability through the lens of critical race theory (“CRT”), providing a crucial discussion of the importance of improving educational outcomes for African American foster youth in general, with a special focus on Maryland. Generally, CRT encompasses an academic critique of the relationship of race, racism, and the power structure. More specifically, the CRT analysis considers racism as an ordinary occurrence in the lives of minorities and central to minorities' experiences in society, making it difficult to eradicate. Further, CRT establishes the concept of “differential racialization,” which describes how the dominant white majority racializes various minority groups differently based upon popular stereotypes or to satisfy the needs of the dominant majority at the time. Another basic concept of CRT is that minority identity is neither singular nor homogenous, and that everyone, including minorities, has intersecting identities. Also, CRT provides a voice to minorities, allowing individual experiences of discrimination and racism to be included in the discussions to address systemic racism.

In examining the experiences of foster youth, race and involvement with the child welfare system are classifications that often intersect when analyzing educational achievement. CRT challenges the notion that the education system employs ideologies of color-blindness and race neutrality. Enforcing laws intended to achieve equality in education by treating everyone the same, will likely only address blatant discrimination. However, this strategy does little to address the biases that African American foster youth face in the education system based upon race and their status in the child welfare system. These “one size fits all” enforcement strategies do not substantially address the life circumstances that African American foster youth have experienced as a result of being victims of the abuse or neglect that initiated their involvement in the child welfare system.

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Critical Race Theory also emphasizes using analysis to develop solutions to transform the current inequities in the system. Accurate data collection and analysis of that data is necessary to identify the specific areas where African American foster youth are falling behind in education. Also, providing a platform for current and former African American foster youth to share their unique experiences in the education system and be a part of informing how to address improving educational outcomes is essential. This will allow these youths to “name their reality” and possibly provide some healing, while simultaneously forcing society as a whole to acknowledge the biases and work to dismantle them. However, focusing on the negative statistics and experiences should not be the only driving force in developing policies. In reviewing the data and collective experiences of African American foster youth in Maryland, a focus on their resilience should also be incorporated into the transformation strategies. This is needed to prevent further perpetuation of the stereotypes associated with African American foster youth and education while trying to improve educational outcomes. For example, this can be attained through, encouraging involvement in extra-curricular activities and establishing healthy peer relationships, having culturally responsible mentors and child welfare agency employees available that can identify with the experiences of the black foster youth, and identifying and supporting the foster youth's strengths.

Therefore, utilizing the CRT framework is critical in analyzing the application of new federal laws, like ESSA and FCA, in connection with the current barriers African American foster youth face in education. This approach can lead to development of creative strategies to target improvement in educational outcomes for this population of marginalized youth. Furthermore, there is a clear intersection of the impact of race and poverty on educational success. A focus on developing policies to attain better educational outcomes for African American foster youth will likely extend to improving educational outcomes for foster youth as a whole along with other marginalized youth. This is especially true in Maryland where there is a particularly large amount of African American foster youth who will benefit from strategies that identify and acknowledge racial biases in the child welfare and education systems, and thus work to eradicate them through programs designed to ensure educational stability and encourage resiliency. 

Marja K. Plater is an attorney who represents children and youth in child abuse and neglect cases in Maryland. She has a passion for advocating for civil rights and social justice issues in general, especially those involving education, children, and families.