Collectively, public schools identified more than 1.3 million homeless students in the 2015-16 school year. Although that number is just 2.5 percent of all public school enrollment, it represents an estimated 30 percent of all school-age children living in extreme poverty. Homelessness is a threat to everything young students want to achieve in life, including strong attachments to family and community, graduation from high school and college, employment, and civic engagement. This vulnerable population has growing support, including through federal legislation, that has the power to put it on a path to a productive life—but only if states fully embrace the opportunity to help those in need.
The Every Student Succeeds Act provides a framework to help states do so. ESSA’s amendments to the McKinney-Vento Act (the federal law originally passed in 1987 that ensures educational stability and enrollment protections for homeless children and youths) reflect a growing understanding that homelessness has an impact on academic achievement over and above the impact of poverty. Only five states currently report graduation rates for homeless students, and all have found that they have lower graduation rates and higher dropout rates than those of housed, poor students.
As one of us—Barbara Duffield—wrote in the opinion pages of Education Week last September, all states will be required to report achievement and graduation rates for homeless students beginning with this school year, shining a light on their struggles and needs. The McKinney-Vento Act is the blueprint for helping homeless students graduate. ESSA improved that blueprint by bolstering state and local education agency responsibilities to identify homeless students; remove barriers to their school attendance and success; and connect them to essential services, including early education opportunities and academic and other supports for transitions to postsecondary education.
Those changes aim to level the playing field for homeless students and make sure they are not penalized for circumstances beyond their control.
But early signs show the nation has more work to do. In the past few months, the first nine states to submit their ESSA plans, which detail how they will implement these guidelines under the new law, have received feedback from the U.S. Department of Education about each plan’s effectiveness. And the department has highlighted some serious shortcomings, in particular, flaws in supporting and educating homeless students.
In its review of plans from Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, and Tennessee, the Education Department noted omissions of key provisions of the McKinney-Vento Act. There are more than 100,000 identified students experiencing homelessness in those nine states alone. While the department reserved the greatest criticism for Connecticut’s plan, inadequacies were identified for every single state.
Homelessness has an impact on academic achievement over and above the impact of poverty."
Across states, the areas of greatest concern noted by the Education Department were: 1) failure to describe procedures to ensure that homeless students do not face barriers to accessing academic and extracurricular activities, including magnet schools, summer school, career and technical education, advanced placement, and charter school programs; and 2) failure to demonstrate how state and local education agencies have devised policies to remove enrollment and retention barriers for homeless students, including outstanding fees or absences.
Without clear, specific plans for how the McKinney-Vento Act will be implemented, homeless students may not even be able to enroll in school, let alone benefit from instruction and services. In a 2016 survey by Civic Enterprises (John Bridgeland’s organization), 62 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds who had experienced homelessness in middle and high school said that proof-of-residency requirements posed a major challenge when enrolling in a new school. Those sorts of requirements are promulgated by states and school districts. States’ plans must spell out how they will review and revise residency, guardianship, attendance, and other state and local policies that act as barriers to enrollment and attendance.
In addition to the McKinney-Vento Act, ESSA provides other important supports for homeless students, including requirements under Title I to reserve funding for them at all local education agencies There is also an opportunity to use state-level funds designated for overall school improvement to specifically help homeless students. That extra monetary support could provide additional staff time for outreach and case management, transportation, or credit-recovery programs for students, depending on the needs of the school district.
As two national leaders who work with homeless students on a regular basis, we are heartened to see that several states have already resubmitted their revised plans in response to the feedback and made significant improvements. Those plans now describe with much greater specificity not simply that states will comply with the provisions of the McKinney-Vento Act but also how they will do so, including the steps they will take and who will take them.
In Delaware, for example, a committee of school district liaisons will draft district policy for how to award credit for coursework completed at a previous school; a statewide form will ensure a student’s ability to earn credits will factor into deciding which school the student should attend; and the state education agency will monitor credit accrual in school districts. As states work to improve and finalize their plans, we urge state leaders to learn from the Education Department’s feedback, from each other, and from their own students, schools, and communities.
We also strongly urge states to review notes on submitted plans from other states’ McKinney-Vento coordinators, which provide constructive responses on their strengths and limitations. State progress reports and rankings on homeless students’ education also can assist in these efforts. Every state must submit its plan by September.
With informed, focused, and strategic action, we can make schools the source of stability and hope for students without homes.