Homeless Students Lost in the Shuffle of ESEA Waivers

One in every 30 children in the U.S. experienced homelessness in 2013. Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education seems to have placed the programs that support these youth on the back burner.

Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in 1987. It was the first and only major federal legislative response to homelessness. Among other provisions, the legislation created the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) Program, which outlined the rights of homeless students and families, required states to develop plans to meet the educational needs of homeless students, and provided formula grants to states. The EHCY program was last amended and reauthorized as part of the 2002 reauthorization of ESEA (NCLB).

Accountability for the EHCY program was glaringly absent from the original ESEA waiver guidance and is also omitted from recent ESEA waiver renewal guidance. As a result, the U.S. Department of Education’s monitoring of states’ compliance with ESEA waiver requirements does not include compliance with EHCY programs.

The de-prioritization of services for homeless students among federal priorities is especially troubling given the growing numbers of homeless students in the U.S. A new report by the National Center on Family Homelessness found that from 2012 to 2013 the number of children experiencing homelessness increased 8 percent nationally. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia experienced increases in the number of children experiencing homelessness.

Homeless children face barriers above and beyond those faced by low-income students: They change schools more often, losing as much as three to six months of education with every transfer; they often lack proper documentation and thus experience greater enrollment barriers; they lack transportation to and from school; and many face difficulties in being evaluated for special education programs and services, participating in extra-curricular activities, obtaining counseling services, and accessing before- and after-school care programs. As a result of these added challenges, policies and programs aimed at supporting low-income students do not always sufficiently support homeless students.

It’s hard to believe any policymakers would not support the education of homeless students; however, they must weigh tradeoffs about what to prioritize, based on existing federal incentive and accountability structures. Without a priority placed on the implementation of EHCY, homeless students may lose out on many of the supports they need and to which they are legally entitled. Policymakers must remain aware of which programs—and ultimately which students—are lost in the shuffle.