Advocates for children in foster care thought they’d scored a win in June when city budget documents announced a commitment to “ensure [school] busing for foster care students.”
But the Education Department’s actual plan – which involves hiring a transportation liaison but no immediate commitment to busing for grade-schoolers in foster care – doesn’t match that promise, and leaves the city out of compliance with state and federal law, according to advocates.
“It’s mind-boggling,” said City Council member and Education Committee chair Mark Treyger of the proposed plan. Treyger said he left the June negotiations expecting the Education Department would provide buses for this school year.
“The council is not satisfied,” he told the Daily News. “We don’t just need a coordinator to oversee what we already have.”
Education Department officials said they never committed to busing specifically, and hiring a coordinator is a necessary first step to improving transportation.
“Our students deserve safe and reliable transportation, and we’re adding a new staff member to meet the transportation needs of each student in foster care,” said department spokesman Will Mantell.
Federal and state education law require school districts to provide transportation for students in foster care so they don’t have to switch schools after a placement.
“School stability is critical for children who’ve been separated from their families,” said Stephen Hanmer, the education director for SCO Family of Services, a foster agency.
The city currently places foster care students on buses only if a route already exists. It also buses students whose special education plans require it — a substantial chunk of students in foster care.
But for the remaining students, the Education Department offers only a MetroCard. For elementary schoolchildren who can’t travel alone, that means foster parents have to choose between spending hours shepherding kids on public transit, or simply switching schools, said Randi Levine, the policy director of Advocates for Children.
The Administration for Children’s Services also offers reimbursement for Uber rides. But foster agencies say that option presents the same dilemma as public transit, since Uber drivers aren’t certified chaperones like school bus operators, and that they can’t send young kids alone.
“It creates a lot of stress and anxiety,” Hanmer told The News.
Levine said the city’s current plan clearly doesn’t meet the requirements in state and federal law.
“A MetroCard is not transportation,” she said.
About 5,000 kids in foster homes attend city schools, and fewer than 3,000 are in elementary school, Levine said. Of those, only a few hundred would need the additional bus service.
The city currently guarantees buses to students who enter homeless shelters so they can stay in their current schools.
The June budget documents didn’t allocate additional funds for foster care transportation, but signaled the city would use “existing resources” to “ensure busing.”
City Council spokeswoman Jennifer Fermino said hiring the transportation liaison “is the first step, but more must be done.”
Education Department officials said the new liaison would be in place by September.