The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act has helped ensure that homeless children and youth have access to the same educational opportunities as their non-homeless peers. Under the legislation, the U.S. Department of Education provides grants to states, which in turn provide subgrants to local education agencies (LEAs). LEAs can use these grants for a variety of projects, including coordinating with local service agencies or expediting enrollment for homeless students. Most often these subgrants are awarded on a competitive basis, and funding levels are determined by “need.” Unfortunately, the way states determine need is insufficient.
Typically, need is defined as the number of homeless students served in the district. In California and Ohio, for example, though all LEAs are eligible to apply for a grant, grant amounts are based on the LEA’s reported count of homeless students in the previous year. In Virginia, the size of the homeless student population accounts for 30 percent of an LEA’s overall application score.
To be sure, the size of the homeless student population is an important consideration for states when making subgrants. The more homeless students a district has, the more resources are needed to ensure those students are served. But homeless population size may not be the only, or most important, determiner of an LEA’s need for additional funds.
Homeless students face a host of challenges both in and out of school, and districts often rely on partnerships with outside service agencies to support homeless students and their families in accessing food, clothing, shelter, and mental and physical health services. But the disparity in the availability of service agencies based on geography is well documented. Agencies and organizations serving the homeless tend to be clustered in city centers, meaning that LEAs located in or near urban areas have a variety of agencies at their disposal, while rural and suburban areas have greater difficulty accessing similar services. When these services do exist, the lack of public transportation can make it difficult for families to access them. As a result, schools and districts located in rural and suburban geographies are often less equipped to deal with student homelessness than those located in urban areas and therefore may need more funds to bring in services or transport students and families to agencies in neighboring towns.
If geography and the availability of outside service agencies were considered alongside the homeless population size, a fuller picture of an LEA’s “need” for a McKinney-Vento subgrant would emerge. It is likely the case, for example, that a rural school district has a harder time supporting 100 homeless students and accessing necessary services than does an urban district with 1,000 homeless students.
Ultimately, states should consider these other relevant factors alongside the LEA’s homeless population count when determining need and subgranting funds. Doing so would help school districts better meet the needs of some of society’s most vulnerable children.