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Published in Print: September 21, 2005, as Law on Education of the Homeless a Challenge for Districts

Law on Education of the Homeless a Challenge for Districts

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A federal law that guarantees education for homeless children is easing the way into new schools for the thousands of children forced from home by Hurricane Katrina. But the law may also pose legal, financial, and administrative challenges for state and district officials striving to help them.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which Congress first passed in 1987 and reauthorized as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, requires that states ensure that each homeless child has equal access to the same public education as that of other children. The law also requires states to identify and remove barriers to homeless children’s education, such as requirements for school records and proof of residency or a lack of transportation.

In addition, the law contains several provisions that appear to butt up against some of the practices being used or considered by the districts taking in hurricane evacuees. For example, the statute prohibits homeless children from being segregated from other students in separate classrooms or buildings, and from being provided regular educational services at shelters.

The McKinney-Vento Act authorizes some federal funding—$56 million was appropriated for fiscal 2005, which ends Sept. 30—to help states educate homeless students. States receive their share under a formula based on the number of children in the state who are eligible for Title I compensatory education. The law’s mandates apply to all districts in a state that accepts aid under the law, regardless of whether a particular district receives any of the funding.

In fiscal 2004, states received grants ranging from just $7,300 to $8.6 million—including $5.4 million for Texas, $1.3 million for Louisiana, and $760,000 for Mississippi. Districts in those three states have taken in many of the students displaced by Katrina.

Such amounts would fall far short of covering the added costs that school districts with large numbers of evacuees are suddenly facing, said Deborah Rigsby, the director of federal legislation for the National School Boards Association, in Alexandria, Va. The group has asked Congress to provide supplemental funding to help districts cope with the influx of students, and the Bush administration last week was refining its plans for seeking aid for schools.

Even under normal circumstances, meeting the McKinney-Vento law’s requirements entails significant costs for schools, said Barbara Duffield, the policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, based in Washington.

Homeless students are entitled to transportation between school and their shelters or temporary housing. Districts must also provide “one-on-one direct services,” Ms. Duffield said, such as identifying homeless families and helping them enroll children in school and sign up for health insurance, in some instances.

The “education liaisons” that many districts have for homeless children are “freaking out,” Ms. Duffield said last week. “They’re really scrambling” because of the challenges posed by the hurricane, she added.

In one instance, the Pittsburgh schools’ homeless liaison reported that evacuated children there needed eyeglasses.

Funding Method

The challenge may be greater in small districts that, before now, had few students eligible for Title I assistance and small populations of homeless students, Ms. Duffield said.

“Maybe districts who have a good-sized McKinney-Vento grant, and Title I dollars, are able to provide services,” she said.

In addition, Ms. Duffield suggested that changes are needed in the way grants under the McKinney-Vento law are distributed to schools. The law directs states to award grants competitively to districts that apply for funding. A better alternative in the current crisis would be to allow states to distribute the money based on demonstrated need after an expedited review, Ms. Duffield said.

Demonstrated need could include factors such as the numbers of homeless children and the district’s existing capacity to assist them, she said.

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, at a press conference in Washington last week, observed that the McKinney-Vento law “asks school districts to accommodate students that show up as homeless students, which they have done very warmly and well.”

But she noted that some 5,000 children living at the Houston Astrodome are required under the law to go to the school in the attendance zone where they are living.“That’s not a practical approach,” Ms. Spellings said, adding that she was working on a plan to help districts on that problem.

Waivers Proposed

Meanwhile, several bills introduced in Congress would waive or adapt federal laws to address the educational needs of students affected by Hurricane Katrina. A bill introduced last week by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, would authorize the secretary of education to use federal hurricane-relief funds to cover the education expenses related to serving displaced students.

The bill would waive the McKinney-Vento law’s provisions on the placement of homeless children in schools for the rest of the 2005-06 school year, including setting aside its prohibition against placing children in separate schools based on their homeless status.

“Homelessness alone is not sufficient reason to separate students from the mainstream school environment,” the law reads.

Officials in some states and cities have considered setting up school programs at venues such as stadiums or closed military bases where homeless families have been relocated. And Houston district officials have reopened two closed elementary schools to serve children who have arrived from Louisiana. ("Houston Handles Student Influx With Few Problems, So Far," Sept. 14, 2005)

Advocates for the homeless are cautious about such proposals, however.

“You can make the case that for at least a couple of days, when children are at baseball stadiums or on fairgrounds, you can provide education to them there, but getting them into public school situations is really the way to go,” said Michael Stoops, the acting executive director of the National Homeless Civil Rights Organizing Project, an advocacy group in Washington.

“The easy fix is to educate homeless kids in a homeless shelter,” Mr. Stoops said. “It’s easier to do it in a shelter, but would you want your own kids [to be educated] there?”

Vol. 25, Issue 04, Page 20

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