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Education Department Criticized for 'Shutting Out' Homeless Children

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Washington--The Education Department and the states have largely failed to comply with provisions of a federal law aimed at ensuring that homeless children receive an education, a new report charges.

Citing federal statistics and data collected through a 20-state survey, the report by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimates that 450,000 children are homeless and an additional 2 million children are "precariously housed." Of the school-age homeless children, at least 28 percent are not attending school, the report states.

These children are being "shut out" of schools, in part, it charges, because the Education Department has failed to implement a mandate under the 1987 Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act intended to guarantee homeless children access to public schools.

The report was presented to the Senate Employment and Productivity Subcommittee last week during hearings on the reauthorization of the McKinney Act.

The act identifies barriers that are known to prevent schools from accepting children without a permanent residence.

These barriers include overly strict residency requirements, delays in the transfer of student records, burdensome documentation and guardianship requirements, and lack of transportation.

Under the act, each state was to submit a report estimating its number of homeless children and outlining school-attendance patterns. States were also required to submit a plan for educating such children and ensuring they have equal access to all public education services.

The report contends that the Education Department, which was charged with monitoring state compliance, has failed in its duties in a number of ways.

First, the department delayed for more than a year distributing to states the approximately $5 million in funding that was available to help meet the act's requirements, the report says.

The department also did not offer adequate guidance to states, and did not monitor compliance, according to the report. For their part, it says, states have also failed to follow the provisions of the bill.

The report also charges that education officials altered the estimates of homeless children contained in some states' reports.

Department officials reply that they were attempting to report figures that were consistent with those of other states. State estimates varied widely because of different data-collection methods used.

Kennedy To Seek Amendments

In testimony before the Senate panel last week, John T. MacDonald, the department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, acknowledged that the department's count of homeless children based on the state reports was faulty.

But rather than rework data-collection methods, he said, the Senate panel should eliminate the counting requirement altogether.

"We are convinced that our report does more of a disservice than the service that was intended by the statute," he said. "We therefore recommend that the state educational agencies be relieved of this data-collection requirement with which they simply do not have the resources and expertise to comply."

Instead, Mr. MacDonald suggested, the 1990 Census count should be used to provide information about the homeless population.

In addition to calling for stricter compliance with McKinney Act mandates, the National Law Center report recommends that the legislation be amended to expand the services available to homeless children, including after-school programs, tutoring, school meals, and supplies.

Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a member of the committee, agreed in a statement to the panel that services should be expanded under the statute.

Aides say the Massachusetts Democrat plans to introduce legislation this week to amend the bill and to hold the Education Department more accountable for its implementation.

Copies of the report, "Shut Out: Denial of Education to Homeless Children," are available for $5 each from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, 918 F St., N.W., Suite 412, Washington, D.C. 20004; telephone (202) 638-2535.

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