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New York Board Sets Rules for the Homeless

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By Kirsten Goldberg

The New York Board of Regents, settling a debate among school districts over their responsibility for educating homeless children, has approved regulations that allow the parents of such children to decide where they will attend school.

The new rules, adopted on May 20, make New York the second state, after Connecticut, to address formally a major consequence of homelessness: children being forced to change schools, take long bus rides, or miss weeks of classes because of jurisdictional disputes that arise when they move with their families to emergency shelters.

New York's regulations are the first by a state board and the first in the country that give homeless parents the right to choose their children's school.

"Knowing we can't solve all the problems of homelessness, our overriding goal is to get these children in school as soon as possible with as little fuss as possible,'' Thomas J. Sobol, the state education commissioner, told the board.

The regulations, slated to take effect next fall, will affect an estimated 2,000 children throughout New York State. Homeless children in New York City, where there is one school district, are not expected to be affected by the regulations.

Estimates of the number of homeless children in the state range from 16,000 to 25,000. New York ranks first among the states in the number of children living in shelters, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. About 4,000 such children live outside New York City, and about half of those are of school age.

The board also proposed legislation that would provide additional aid to districts that accept the homeless.

'Emergency Situation'

Homeless children usually attend school either in the district in which their shelter is located or the district in which the family had lived. But schools closest to the shelters often refuse to enroll the children, on the grounds that they are not permanent residents.

In some cases, both districts have refused to enroll such children, citing residency laws. Some children have missed weeks or even months of school until courts ordered the districts to enroll them, advocates for the homeless say.

The Connecticut legislature passed a law last year requiring the homeless child's former district to pay the sheltering district the cost of the education and transportation. In case of disputes, the law stipulates that the sheltering district must enroll the child immediately, pending the resolution of the problem.

The New York regulations generally drew praise from advocates for the homeless, who said the rules could have been more comprehensive. But, they added, the change was urgently needed.

"The board took action because the legislature wouldn't,'' said Lydia S. Ely, a spokesman for the National Coalition for the Homeless. "They are in an emergency situation in New York and they couldn't afford to wait.''

However, when the regulations were first proposed by the state education department in February, some superintendents raised the concern that the new rules would cause a sudden change in the enrollment patterns of homeless children, many of whom need specialized services. The regulations, they complained, would not provide funds to pay for such services.

The department's plan encourages several districts in a region to develop a regional placement plan that would prevent any single district from bearing an unfair share of enrollment. Parents would have the option of sending their children to their former district, the district they currently reside in, or to other districts participating in the regional plan.

The board endorsed a legislative proposal that would require the state to pay receiving districts the full cost of educating the homeless until it could recover state per-pupil aid from a child's home district. Such a system would cost the state about $2.5 million.

Mr. Sobol has said he expects the legislature to approve the bill. Some education lobbyists, however, said the bill could be imperiled by the state's expected $900-million budget shortfall this year.

Other States May Follow

Advocates for the homeless say they hope that a provision in a new federal law will pressure other states to adopt similar regulations.

New York's new rules 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 has received $406,371 under that law for programs to address the needs of homeless children.

The federal law stipulates 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.

Nationally, there are an estimated 500,000 children living in temporary shelters.

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