Homeless Children Not Receiving Necessary Educational Services
The report, being compiled by the new office for the education of homeless children and youth within the Education Department, represents the first stage in federal efforts to help states make adequate plans to deal with a problem that officials at both levels of government say is more pressing than they had realized.
Both state and federal planners last week acknowledged, however, that the forthcoming report's count of homeless children, to be released Feb. 15, will represent "very conservative" numbers supplied by the states. The state counts come from rough estimates and anecdotal evidence, they said, and reflect political pressures on officials to downplay the scope of the problem.
Those interviewed last week agreed that their tallies most likely represent only a third of their states' total population of homeless children.
Even so, said Edward E. Smith, the federal official who is preparing the report, "theinued on Page 19
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policy implications are staggering." The report will show, for example, that a high percentage of homeless young are age 5 or under, he said.
The state counts were required under the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act of 1987. The portrait they paint is expected to bolster the case made by other recent reports that greater attention to children's services in programs for the homeless is essential.
Last year, for example, the National Academy of Sciences determined that children were among the fastest-growing homeless group.
The National Coalition for the Homeless last year estimated that there were between 500,000 and 750,000 school-age homeless nationwide, and that only about 43 percent attended school regularly.
Little Money, Big Challenge
In addition to requiring a state count of homeless children, the McKinney Act stipulates that officials determine whether any state laws or policies prevent homeless children from attending school, and that they develop plans to provide educational services to such children that are equal to those provided other state residents.
But complying with the McKinney Act has been a much greater challenge, many state education officials say, than they expected.
While the act has enabled them to see how serious the problem is, they assert, it has offered no guidance and little funding to deal with it.
Unless the Bush Administration decides to fully fund the McKinney Act, which has only received a fraction of the money called for in the original bill, educators predict that little real progress will be made.
Advocates for the homeless are already criticizing what they see as the "snail's pace" of state compliance.
"There has been an extraordinary delay," said Maria Foscarinis, spokesman for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington. "And time is so precious when you're dealing with the education of kids.''
Cynthia L. Uline, coordinator of Pennsylvania's office of education for homeless children and youth, responded that "the McKinney Act has been a helpful impetus, but it doesn't help states know what to do."
Mr. Smith, in the federal office, acknowledged that the Education Department has been reluctant to "tell people what to do."
The McKinney Act mandates only that states submit a plan to receive funding. It does not require that the plan be approved or offer sanctions for those who do not comply. Mr. Smith said he can only offer "suggestions" about the states' proposals.
Sensitive and Complex Issue
Mr. Smith also noted that the issue is a particularly complex and sensitive one. Many state leaders, he said, have been unwilling to admit the severity of the homelessness problem in their own jurisdictions.
And for those who would like to take action, the question of funding has been a stubborn obstacle.
"There are a lot of people out there who will say, 'Hey, if the Feds are not going to pay for it, then I'm not going to impose any new rules on districts and ask them to pay for it'," Mr. Smith said.
"People are going to try to go tiptoeing around this thing because it's