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Budget & Finance Opinion

How Districts Can Use Relief Funds to Help the Students Most in Need

Districts can put the federal dollars to good use for students experiencing homelessness
By Joseph Bishop & Debra Duardo — April 22, 2021 4 min read
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Congress just passed a massive stimulus package intended to help communities rebound from COVID-19. The American Rescue Plan includes $129 billion for K-12 education. Public schools will remain an epicenter of an economic-recovery agenda, as they were for President Barack Obama’s stimulus package over a decade ago. And young people, who have shouldered a significant burden from a generational pandemic, will need public schools to be ready for their return.

But the stakes are especially high for a federal response that will bring as much as $15 billion to California, the state with the most students, and $285 million to Vermont, which serves the fewest number of young people. Most money will be funneled through districts to focus on learning acceleration and to target districts that serve a large portion of low-income students. There are several converging factors that make the strategic use of federal funds exceptionally timely, in particular for students who historically have been furthest from opportunity: students experiencing homelessness.

One, because of elevated unemployment rates driven by an unprecedented health crisis, families are increasingly mobile, making it hard for schools to track down families. Two, COVID-19-related mental-health challenges are posing unique obstacles for students, especially students of color who are more likely to be dealing with the grief associated with family members dying from COVID-19-related causes and the cumulative effects of systemic racism. Three, racial and economic isolation is on the rise, reflected in growing food and housing insecurity.

As our research at the Center for the Transformation of Schools found, even prior to the pandemic, student homelessness has reached a state of crisis in California, so much so that Dodger Stadium could be filled to capacity almost five times with 269,000 housing insecure youth, mostly youth of color. This trend is mirrored nationally, with a 15 percent increase in student homelessness across the country from 2015-16 through 2017-18, to a total of 1.5 million young people.

The American Rescue Plan, which sets aside $800 million in grants to states to support homeless education, represents a step in the right direction in support of policies that prioritize special student populations. State, district, and school leaders can leverage these new funds in very specific ways:
1. Find students disconnected from school systems by the pandemic. One national study from November found that an estimated 420,000 fewer children and youth experiencing homelessness have been identified and enrolled in schools this school year. Additional staffing and resources can help homeless liaisons to find missing students and families. Outreach plans and creative partnerships with nonprofits, social workers, and community-based organizations are also essential. No one entity or organization can be solely responsible for finding young people and getting them the services they need.

No one entity or organization can be solely responsible for finding young people and getting them the services they need.

2. Prioritize student basic needs as central to learning. That same study found that students experiencing homelessness during COVID-19 often not only lack stable housing but also internet, food, child care, and health-care services. Student learning and COVID-19 learning acceleration plans will first depend upon the ability of school systems to prioritize students’ basic needs in new and profound ways. Increasingly, especially in rural communities, connectivity is a basic need. A recent national survey found that 1 out of 3 households with school-age children and an annual income below $30,000 still lack high-speed internet, a number likely higher for young people who are housing insecure.

3. Focus on communities with fewer resources and the greatest need. Our analysis in California found that 3 of the 10 districts with the largest homeless-student enrollment in the state are in Los Angeles County, including Los Angeles Unified (18,979), Long Beach Unified (7,251), and Norwalk-La Mirada (5,417), showing that need is heavily concentrated in our state. These figures offer a stark reminder that funds must follow need in districts. While a onetime $800 million stimulus investment is progress, more weighted and predictable federal and state funding is still needed. This map from the National Center for Homeless Education shows how many students experience homelessness in each of the states, indicating that challenges are uneven but also widespread.

4. Direct funds to students who will benefit most from more support. Federal stimulus funds can provide a needed boost for state investments in early education, special education, expanded learning, community schools, and funds for community college students affected by housing and food insecurity. Each of these funding sources presents an opportunity to get education services to students experiencing homelessness, from young families with children to students working toward graduating.

School districts across the country will be presented with lots of leeway to determine how to best make use of federal funds. However, we can’t afford to squander the chance presented now to bring greater attention to the educational success of students furthest from opportunity. Homelessness deserves not only everyone’s attention but also adequate resources and a commitment from decisionmakers in all settings—from classrooms to local school boards to statehouses to the halls of Congress.

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