Federal requirements for protecting educational access for homeless children expands even as their numbers also increase.
What homeless children need most of all is a home. While they are experiencing homelessness, however, children desperately need to remain in school. School is one of the few stable, secure places in the lives of homeless children and youth — a place where they can acquire the skills needed to help them escape poverty.
— National Coalition for the Homeless, August 2007
Homelessness has an enormous influence on a child’s ability to obtain an education.
Absences and mobility punctuate the lives of many homeless students. Every time a child has to change schools, learning is disrupted. By one estimate, a child loses three to six months of education with every move.
To respond to the needs of homeless students, Congress enacted the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 1987 to ensure that homeless students had access to a public education. The bill passed by a wide bipartisan majority and was later named after its chief sponsor, Rep. Stewart McKinney from Connecticut, shortly after his death. The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015 introduced new amendments to the McKinney Act, which affect how schools interact with homeless students.
Today over 4,000 public school districts receive funds through the McKinney Act. This includes school districts in every state. With these funds come the federal requirements to aid homeless students.
When the McKinney Act was enacted, determining the number of homeless children was difficult because data collection was rather spotty. The National Coalition for the Homeless estimated that schools were serving between 300,000 and 700,000 homeless students (Ely, 1987). But the coalition also said that schools were serving only about half of all homeless children. Since then, the number of homeless students served by public schools has consistently climbed. Between the 2006-07 school year and the 2013-14 school year, the number of homeless children nearly doubled (National Center for Homeless Education, 2015). The latest national data indicate public schools serve nearly 1.3 million homeless students (2015).
What caused an increase in the number of homeless students is not completely clear. Certainly states are doing a much better job of identifying and serving the needs of homeless students. We can assume identification and data collection will continue to improve because of recent changes to the law that require schools to disaggregate students’ academic achievement data (for example, assessments, graduation rates) by homeless status starting in the 2017-18 school year. Part of the increase in the number of students served must also be a real increase in the number of children who are homeless as part of a homeless family or surviving alone without adult supervision (known in the statute as “unaccompanied minors.”)
The McKinney Act defined homeless students as individuals who do not have a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This includes students living in motels, temporarily with other families or friends, in places not designed as permanent residences or lacking fundamental utilities, e.g. in cars, abandoned buildings, or camping. With the recent changes in the law, children awaiting foster care placement are no longer considered homeless.
State and local school districts are required to affirmatively review programs, policies, and practices to see if they may cause barriers for homeless students. When barriers are found, they must work to revise them or specifically accommodate homeless students to remove the barrier. For instance, homeless students should be enrolled in school without waiting for records that are normally required such as birth certificates, health records, and guardianship documentation.
The obligations to homeless students in part echo the rights provided to students with disabilities. State and local education agencies must ensure that homeless children have equal access to the same free, appropriate public education provided to other children. School districts are required to provide services to students and remove barriers that may impede their education. Students must have access to educational services that will enable them to meet the state’s academic standards. Related services may be provided such as tutoring, school supplies, and waivers of school fees. Schools may use federal funds for low-income students (Title I) as well as McKinney grant funds to meet the educational needs for homeless students.
Schools may not segregate homeless students from the mainstream school environment. Except as necessary for emergency situations, schools may not provide services in separate facilities. Homeless students have a right to remain in their educational placement even if their living situation places them in the geographic boundaries of another school, school district, or state. If a student’s parent or guardian disagrees with the district about the location of services, districts must allow the child to remain in the same school until a review has resolved the dispute. Like special education procedures, districts must give parents (and students) clear notice of rights and an explanation of procedures and processes. Districts must provide assistance (including transportation) to homeless students to make sure homeless students can remain in a school throughout the academic year, regardless of where they live.
Under the new changes in the law, this stay-put requirement and transportation for homeless students is being expanded to preschoolers. The U.S. Department of Education has stressed the importance of a stable early childhood educational environment for homeless children.
For children under five, the unsafe living conditions and poverty that accompany homelessness may have a negative impact on their brain development and impact learning, behavior, and both physical and social-emotional well-being. Nurturing and stable relationships with adult caregivers is critical to the healthy social-emotional development of young children. An early childhood program may be the one stable and structured environment that young children who are homeless can depend on and, as such, school and program stability is of the utmost importance for this vulnerable population (U.S. Department of Education, 2016).
As such there is an increased emphasis in identifying and serving preschool children. The statute requires local liaisons to identify preschool homeless children similar to the special education “child find” requirements. They are urged to work closely with shelters, low-income early childhood programs, and special needs providers to proactively find children who need services.
There is also new attention paid to high school-age homeless youth. The changes in the law and U.S. Department of Education information about how to implement the changes, draw attention to the problems these students have in accruing credits for high school graduation. Districts are charged with reviewing their credit requirements to ensure that students can get full or partial credit for their work. They are also encouraged to offer credit-recovery courses so students can earn credit in a more flexible way.
Further attention is drawn to unaccompanied students. They often face special challenges since they must fend for themselves for their basic needs and have no adult to advocate for them or exercise parental legal rights. Although the statute has no specific new mandates for these students, the U.S. Department of Education advises, “(g)iven their vulnerability to not graduating from high school on time or at all, special attention and support should be provided to this important subgroup of homeless youths” (U.S. Department of Education, 2016, p. 45).
Public schools cannot provide for all the needs of a homeless student. The federal laws are intended to provide guidance for ensuring that public schools can make a difference in the daily lives and future of homeless students by improving the education they receive.
Ely, L. (1987, December). Broken lives: Denial of education to homeless children. Washington, DC: National Coalition for the Homeless.
National Center for Homeless Education. (2015, November). Federal data summary school years 2011-12 to 2013-14: Education for homeless children and youth. Greensboro, NC: Author.
U.S. Department of Education. (2016, July 27). Education for homeless children and youths program nonregulatory guidance. Washington, DC: Author. www2.ed.gov/policy/elsec/leg/essa/160240ehcyguidance072716.pdf
JULIE UNDERWOOD (Julie.Underwood@wisc.edu) is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Originally published in November 2016 Phi Delta Kappan 98 (3), 76-77. © 2016 Phi Delta Kappa International. All rights reserved.