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Battle Lines Drawn In New York Over Rules on Homeless

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New York lawmakers, education officials, and public-interest advocates are lining up their arguments for a forthcoming debate over the state education department's proposed regulations governing the schooling of homeless children.

If adopted, the new rules would make New York the first state to address formally the problems encountered by children who are forced to change schools because their families have had to move to so-called "welfare motels" or emergency shelters for the homeless.

The department's plan would resolve the often contentious jurisdictional questions surrounding homeless children by letting their parents decide where to enroll them.

There are an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 children of homeless families in New York State. About 25 percent live in the suburban counties surrounding New York City.

Most attend school either in the district where their temporary shelter is located or the district from which the family has moved, according to state education officials.

But often, they add, both districts refuse to enroll the students, claiming that they are not permanent residents.

In some cases, homeless families have sued the districts and gotten court orders allowing them to enroll. But the children involved often miss weeks of class while the courts decide where they should attend school.

'Going To Be a Fight'

The new regulations, which were presented to the New York Board of Regents at their Feb. 26 meeting, are scheduled to be voted on in May, after a period for public comment that promises to be rancorous, due to the shifting financial burdens involved.

But Thomas Sobol, the state education commissioner, told the Regents, "We want to get those kids in school as quickly as we can. Which person is best suited to know where they will be living? The parent."

The proposals have drawn praise from advocates for the homeless, who say the change would ensure that children continue to receive schooling while their families find a place to live.

But some school administrators say they fear the regulations will cause a sudden change in enrollment patterns, without any additional state funding to provide for the specialized services homeless children sometimes need.

"There's going to be a very tough fight," predicted Frederick M. Griesbach, director of the New York State Coalition for the Homeless. He notel10led that bills addressing the issue have been rejected consistently over the last three years.

Impetus of Federal Law

The regulations were prompted by the state education department's application for federal funds through the two-year, $1-billion Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, passed by the Congress last July.

The department could receive about $400,000 through the legislation for programs addressing the needs of homeless children, according to a report prepared for the presentation to the Regents last month. The department also has applied for funds for literacy programs for homeless adults.

The new federal law stipulates,4however, that states receiving funds must develop a plan for revising their residency laws to ensure that children are not denied education because of their homelessness.

The act requires that homeless children be allowed to enroll in the school that is in "the best interests of the child"--a provision that advocates for the homeless say makes the regents' proposal necessary.

Nationally, about 500,000 children are now homeless, according to a study conducted last December by the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Provide Stability

"The regulations would provide stability," said Michael J. Sinsky, a lawyer with Mid-Hudson Legal Services in Poughkeepsie. "Homeless kids are shifted around almost from week to week. It can be so traumatic."

The regulations would prevent recurrences of the situation that befell 9-year-old Desarae Paganelli. The girl had attended school in Hyde Park until last year, when she and her mother lost their apartment and moved to a shelter for the homeless in Spackenkill.

Both school districts refused to enroll Desarae on the grounds that she did not qualify for permanent residency. She sued both districts.

The U.S. District Court in White Plains issued a temporary restraining order last November, saying the girl was entitled to attend school in Hyde Park. Subsequently, the family moved back to the Hyde Park district, but she had lost 40 days of school while the suit was in progress, said Mr. Sinsky, who represented the girl.

"It shouldn't be decided on a case-by-case basis," said Mr. Griesbach. "The regulations won't be 100 percent effective, but of all the options, it strikes me as the most logical."

Extra Burden

School administrators say that while they are sympathetic to the problems of homeless children, the state should provide funding for the extra burden they sometimes present.

"I'm not sure how the regulations are going to help," said Donald S. Rickett, superintendent of the Peekskill City Schools, where 60 of the district's 2,500 students are homeless.

The proposed regulations do not address the issue of state aid, but the education department is drafting legislation that would require the child's previous district to pay the new district a sum equal to any differences between the regular state per-pupil cost and the actual cost of educating the child.

The charge-back to the "district of last attendance" is designed to cover extra costs for special or remedial education, said Seth Rockmuller, assistant counsel for the education deparment.

Worries Administrators

That proposal, which is yet to be drafted, has some administrators more concerned than the parental-choice provision in the regulations.

"If I have 40 kids who used to live here going to another district, and if the district bills me, that's going to be expensive," Mr. Rickett said.

If a child with special needs decides to attend another district, he noted, the previous district--which already would have the facilities to serve the child--would in effect be paying twice for that child's education.

George E. Port Jr., superintendent of schools in Valhalla, said many of the homeless children in his district are from out of state.

"Who do I bill then?" he asked. "I can't bill Georgia or Florida.''

There also appear to be no provisions for a sudden influx of homeless children into a single district.

Mr. Rickett said he would rather see the state provide aid directly to the districts the homeless children attend.

"Let the aid follow the child, just like regular state funding," he said.

'Tried Everything'

The proposed regulations may be troublesome for State Senator Owen H. Johnson, chairman of the Senate's social-services committee.

The Republican of Suffolk County has introduced legislation in this session that would require homeless children to be educated in the district where they are being sheltered.

The child's previous school district would pay the sheltering district for its educational costs, and would be able to count the child as attending for purposes of state aid.

The bill, currently in the Senate's education committee, is given little chance of passage if the Regents' regulations are adopted, according to Barbara J. Howard, Mr. Johnson's staff director. A companion bill has been introduced in the House.

"We've tried just about every permutation of legislation on this in the past three years," Ms. Howard said.

Senator Johnson has not yet taken a position on the Regents' proposal, Ms. Howard said, but the regulations present a major problem of transportation.

"We don't want to see children transported long distances back to their old school," she said.

The regulations stipulate that districts receiving children from outside their jurisdiction will not be required to pay for transportation.

According to Mr. Rockmuller, the state's education and social-services departments have agreed that the latter will continue to pay the cost of transportation, as it presently does when children attend school outside the district where they are sheltered.

Other states that have applied for federal assistance through the McKinney Act are just beginning to look at the problems of residency. But nowhere does the issue appear to be as contentious as in New York State.

In Massachuesetts, there have been very few cases of districts refusing to enroll a homeless child, said Jack Baptista, coordinator of Chapter 1 services for the state education department.

"We have been resolving these problems fairly easily," Mr. Baptista said. However, he said the department will begin to study the issue when it sets up an office for homeless children with its $89,000 in McKinney Act funds.

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