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States Seen Improving Access to Education for Homeless

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Washington

States have just begun to provide homeless children the level of access to public education required by federal law, according to a report the Education Department plans to issue this summer.

State governments have eliminated many of the laws, regulations, and policies that had the effect of locking homeless children out of public schools, the report says. But, it says, states need to do far more to get homeless children to the schoolhouse door.

The report evaluates state and local efforts to serve the educational needs of homeless children. It found that most such initiatives reach a fraction of such children.

The programs studied work mainly with shelters, which house fewer than half of the nation's homeless children. "Usually, if homeless children and youth are not in the shelters or schools, they are not identified and are effectively not in the system," the report notes.

Moreover, its says, most programs do little to address the education barriers that homeless children encounter. While most such children are able to attend a public school, few are provided access to the schools and special programs that would serve them best.

Transportation is the chief barrier to serving homeless children, the report says, and few districts make much effort to help children stay in the school they attended before becoming homeless, even though doing so is generally in their best educational interest.

The report describes homeless teenagers as especially vulnerable to falling through the cracks. State and local programs tend to neglect them, and many live without a parent or guardian to provide emotional support or required signatures on school forms, the report says.

Barbara J. Duffield, an education-policy analyst for the National Coalition for the Homeless here, said last week the report illustrates how "homeless children and youth are among the most disadvantaged and the most vulnerable of our citizens."

50-State Survey

The Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, passed by Congress in 1987 and amended three years later, requires that states act to insure that homeless children have access to a free, appropriate public education. It provides federal grants for such efforts but requires that states receiving grants report on the progress of initiatives and insure the compliance of local school districts.

Congress appropriated about $28.8 million for the program in the current fiscal year, but House Republicans have targeted it for elimination in fiscal 1996.

The Education Department contracted with Policy Studies Associates Inc. of Washington to review the states' plans and progress reports and to make site visits to determine how well states and districts are serving homeless children.

Last year, the researchers also surveyed the program coordinators for the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The survey found that all but a few states had eliminated the residency or school-records requirements that had been a barrier for homeless children.

Fifteen state program coordinators said that immunization requirements were an enrollment barrier but that their states felt compelled to retain them, often out of a belief that they were required by the Health and Human Services Department.

An equal number of state coordinators reported that they required a legal guardian's signature for enrollment and other education decisions, typically in response to safety or liability concerns.

Thirty state coordinators said school transportation policies were a barrier to the enrollment of homeless children, saying that state and local authorities were reluctant to bear the high costs of transporting homeless children.

State coordinators spend most of their time and energy "just getting homeless children and youth into school," the report says.

Children Hard To Locate

Among other findings, the report says:

  • States channeled more than 70 percent of their grant money to local education agencies, with urban districts being the primary beneficiaries. Because of the limited funding for the program, only 3 percent of the nation's school districts were receiving McKinney subgrant funding during the 1993-94 school year.
  • States and local school districts generally have a difficult time just locating and identifying homeless children. The task is complicated by the fact that many local authorities place homeless families in hotels and motels, sometimes well outside the central city.
  • Homeless children often lack basic school supplies, and the problem is made worse when schools charge fines or fees in connection with activities or materials.

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