Committee OKs bill seeking foster-care tuition waiver

They were a powerful group. Well-spoken, well-dressed, with compelling arguments that were hard to ignore.

As they stepped to the podium Thursday to address the Senate Education Committee, these young foster-care alumni got results even the slickest Capitol lobbyists would envy.

Following their testimony about the struggles, and the expense, of going from foster-care group homes to college, the Senate panel unanimously approved a bill to waive tuition to the state’s three universities for Arizona foster kids.

The bill establishes a five-year pilot program that supporters hope will more than double the number of Arizona foster youths who attend and graduate from college each year. Nationally, less than 3 percent of youths who “age out” of state foster care get a four-year college degree, compared with 30 percent of Americans.

Chris Spiva, who lived in a group home during high school, is now a Chandler rocket scientist with a master’s degree and, he says, $300,000 in student loans. Spiva, 30, said the term “aging out” of foster care means starting over.

“What that really means is you have to leave everything behind,” Spiva told committee members. “So what do you do? Where do you go?”

The cost of college was a barrier, one of many he had to overcome to stay in school. It was a difficult transition, he said, from the highly structured life of a group home, where there is little independence and even trips to the mall are closely monitored, to the freedom of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott.

“The reason I’m a successful adult today is because I was allowed that time (in college) to learn how to be an adult,” Spiva said.

Under Senate Bill 1208, tuition for Arizona foster youths or former foster youths between 16 and 23 years old would be waived, after federal grants and scholarships are applied.

Legislative analysts estimate the measure would cost universities $133,000 during the five-year program, assuming a 50 percent rise in attendance. According to analysis, based on attendance under a federal education-voucher program for foster youths, 49 students enroll at an Arizona university each year. Nationally, two-thirds of foster kids drop out.

More than 30,000 U.S. teens reach adulthood and leave state custody every year without a permanent home, including about 700 in Arizona.

Paul Blavin, a retired investor, has donated $3 million to scholarships for former foster youth at Northern Arizona University and the University of Michigan. Young people who receive these scholarships, he said, are far more likely to stay in school and graduate. Of the 31 Blavin Scholars, 12 have graduated and seven are on track to finish this spring, he said.

“It’s the best investment I’ve ever made,” Blavin, who is from Scottsdale. “If given the chance, youth aging out of foster care can indeed thrive … and ultimately reverse the tragic cycle.”

Monique Gilliam, 23, came into foster care with her sister when their mother died of a drug overdose. By the time she was 16, Gilliam had been in seven group homes and shelters and five high schools. Still, the gifted student managed to graduate early, in the top 5 percent of her class and with a scholarship she took to community college.

By the time she transferred to Arizona State University, she was working and going to school full time while also looking after her younger sister, who was pregnant.

“I was able to make it through those two years with a lot of support, a lot of student loans and no sleep,” said Gilliam, a social worker with Aid to Adoption of Special Kids, a foster-care and adoption agency in Phoenix.

Sen. Leah Landrum Taylor, D-Phoenix, one of the bill’s sponsors, said foster youths need more than money to get through college. They don’t have the family support most college students enjoy, making it more likely they will drop out.

The bill, which has bipartisan support, is being pushed by Valley Leadership, a leadership-development non-profit. It now goes to the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Sen. David Bradley, D-Tucson, who has worked with thousands of foster children during his years as a counselor and administrator with child-welfare agencies, said they can succeed, but adult life is an enormous struggle for most of them.

“I’ve gone to their graduations,” Bradley said. “But I’ve also gone to their funerals and visited them in prison.”

information is cited to The Republic | azcentral.com

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