I love against-all-odds stories. Really, who doesn’t? David vs. Goliath, Harry vs. Voldemort, the Red Sox coming back from 3-0 against the Yankees in the 2004 playoffs. (I know we’re headquartered in New York, but that doesn’t mean we’re all of New York.)

So I was tickled when I heard a new against-all-odds advocacy story this week. Not only is it the kind of story that makes you believe in the possibility of victory for the underdog, it also highlights a tactic all advocates should keep in their playbook: the federal assist.

This story is about a group of child welfare advocates who successfully pushed the California state government to extend the foster-care system from age 18 to age 21 in the middle of a whopping deficit.

It happened nearly a year ago. As the San Jose Mercury News quoted one advocate in describing the need for the policy shift:  “I emancipated from a group home, and basically they handed us a trash bag on our 18th birthday after the cake and said: ‘I hope you do well, come back and see us sometime.’”

Advocates had wanted the age extension for years, but unsurprisingly it came with a price tag in the tens of millions and was essentially a new entitlement program in the middle of our Great Recession.

But with a little help from DC, advocates finally found the window of opportunity they needed to make this program happen. The 2008 Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act gave groups like the California Youth Connection the hook they needed by providing matching funds to states that extended the foster care age past 18. In a twist, the law also allowed states to draw on federal funds to replace state money being used to place foster kids with their own relatives. Those savings, the advocates argued, could “cover” much of California’s part of the deal.

The argument worked.

Advocacy is by definition an uphill battle, and in the fights that are especially tough, the federal assist can open a door to victory. Race to the Top was clearly only the beginning of the federal government’s clever ways of inducing state policy. The new early childhood version of Race to the Top is happening as we speak and the No Child Left Behind waivers program has a similar tenor. Now it’s up to education reformers like us to take advantage of these federal initiatives and use them as leverage to successfully advocate for smart reforms at the state level.

At 50CAN we understand in our guts that states are where education policy is really made and that we’ve got to get movements going to transform our public schools in all 50 state capitols, driven by local leaders if we want to get this done. But we also know that those local campaigns will do well to pay attention to the success of our advocacy colleagues in the California foster care world, and to groups like ConnCAN that used this model to great success in its 2009 Our Race to the Top campaign, and add the federal assist to their own advocacy playbooks.


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