Group wants statewide foster child education plan

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PHOENIX (AP) — Proponents of a program that links foster children with education advocates to improve their success in school want the Arizona Legislature to expand a pilot program now used just in Pima County.

The director of FosterEd: Arizona made the pitch Wednesday to a group of lawmakers at the state Capitol. Former state Rep. Peter Hershberger told several lawmakers who attended the briefing that foster children often fall far behind their peers, drop out at higher rates and often fail to graduate from high school.

Studies show that former foster children are 25 percent more likely to experience homelessness or incarceration, 33 percent get public assistance and the unemployment rate tops 50 percent.

"These and the incalculable health care costs are huge burdens to the Arizona taxpayer," Hershberger said.

The Pima County program Hershberger runs launched in January and is serving nearly 200 foster children. They are assigned an "education champion" who assesses their needs and ensures others involved in the child's life are brought into a team so the child gets services needed to catch up and think about college.

The group wants the state Department of Child Safety to hire 19 workers to take the program statewide at a cost of about $1.5 million a year.

Finding extra money will be tough as Arizona faces a deficit next year, but not doing it is an even worse option, Hershberger said. There are an estimated 15,000 children in foster care statewide, and about 60 percent of them are school-aged, so the money isn't enough to get every child in the program.

"We're not going to touch every foster child, but we're going to touch foster children, and we're going to make a difference in their outcomes," Hershberger said.

Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, is pushing the expansion and got Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert, to set up Wednesday's presentation. Bradley said building a team of volunteers to work with state workers is key to getting lawmakers on board.

"What we're trying to make as a selling point is the team will have to expand and a lot of folks on that team are going to be non-paid volunteer folks that are engaged with that kid," Bradley said. "So the more adept we get at getting the assessments done and getting kids online ... and then engaging that liaison, that's the key to the whole thing."

Chad Campbell, the child safety department's deputy director, said his agency supports the proposal.

"Our department is wholeheartedly behind this project," he said. "We will do whatever we can to move it forward."

Campbell is not the state lawmaker of the same name.

Indiana has adopted a statewide program, while Arizona and California have pilot programs. The nonprofit National Center for Youth Law designed the system and is urging states to adopt it.

Rep. John Allen, R-Scottsdale, who sits on the House education committee, said he was supportive of trying to find money for the program.

"It's going to be a very tight year, but as a priority, I think this is high on my list," Allen said.

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