In the 2012-2013 academic year over 1.2 million students in public school were homeless, 8 percent more than the previous year and 85 percent more than at the beginning of the recession. Though the child poverty rate is decreasing, student homelessness is continuing to rise, presenting significant challenges for students who must deal with the instability that comes with being homeless. When a student is homeless, they live in uncomfortable or dangerous conditions, and may not have a quiet place to do homework every night or not have a place to sleep. Ultimately, this means homeless students transfer schools more often, are more likely to miss school, have lower standardized test scores, and are 87 percent more likely to leave school than their peers.

These outcomes for homeless students would be far worse if it were not for the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program (EHCY), the education subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. Under EHCY, school districts are required to permit students who become homeless to remain in their school of origin if it is their best interest by providing transportation each day, even if they move outside the district because of their lack of permanent housing, which creates some stability and continuity in an otherwise insecure and unstable time. If it is not their best interest to stay in the same school, EHCY permits students to enroll in a new school immediately with or without the records normally required in order to limit the student’s education disruption and ensure they are back in school as soon as possible after a move.

EHCY also supports homeless student liaisons in school districts, which are school staff who help identify homeless students, assist with their school enrollment, and connect the students with services and resources such as counseling, school supplies, transportation, referrals for community services, and professional development for educators.

Yet the federal government can be doing much more to ensure that every homeless student has a great education. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office found that federal oversight of EHCY is lacking, resulting in varying degrees of effectiveness by school district. In addition, in 2015 EHCY was funded at just $65 million, or about $50 for each homeless student if every school district received an EHCY subgrant. At this funding level, only 22 percent of school districts are able to receive subgrants. This is clearly inadequate to serve the educational needs of the millions of homeless students in the United States.

The good news is that this year provides a chance for Congress to strengthen EHCY. Senator Lamar Alexander, the new Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee has stated that reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), under which EHCY is housed, is the Committee’s number one priority. Senator Patty Murray, the ranking member on HELP and a tireless champion on behalf of homeless students, has also signaled her desire to work with Senator Alexander. And there is a good precedent from last Congress, for efforts in both the House and Senate to reauthorize ESEA in the 113th Congress.

It is critical to make sure that provisions to improve and strengthen EHCY are included in any ESEA reauthorization efforts this Congress. Some of these provisions include, but are not limited to:

  • Providing professional development, training, resources, and time to school district homeless liaisons so they can carry out the duties required by the Act
  • Stabilizing homeless children and youth’s education by requiring schools to consider student-centered factors, and to prioritize the wishes of parents and youth, when making school selection decisions
  • Improving identification and outreach efforts by making sure that public notice of the educational rights of homeless students is disseminated appropriately
  • Requiring public preschool programs to identify and prioritize homeless children for enrollment
  • Improving access to summer school, before and after school programs, and other educational opportunities for homeless students
  • Improving the academic progress and high school graduation rate of unaccompanied youth by addressing guardianship barriers, credit accrual problems and access to credit recovery opportunities
  • Making transportation to the school of origin and liaisons an allowable use of Title I, Part A funds
  • Increasing the authorized funding level to increase assistance to homeless students in more school districts, including costs of transportation to the school of origin

Chairman Alexander has already released a discussion draft and First Focus will be submitting comments in the coming weeks that will include our recommendations for EHCY as well as a range of other reforms that will improve access to education for children in the United States.