For a homeless family with kids in school, the federal law that started it all was the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
This law was first passed in 1987 and is reauthorized with the passage of various federal education bills (although this is never guaranteed). It was a significant step in focusing attention on at-risk students and has been a key piece of legislation in the ongoing efforts at public school reform.
It's a long document, but everything that teachers need to know can be summarized in a few short paragraphs. Here's your primer on what the US government has to say about the rights of homeless families when it comes to school and closing the achievement gap.
Defining “homeless students”
Perhaps the most significant aspect of McKinney-Vento is to define what “homeless” means in the context of students. Very few kids are actually sleeping on the streets or under bridges, as can so often happen with homeless adults.
But since homelessness can take so many different forms, prior to the passage of this law it was perhaps too easy to dismiss some living situations as not requiring any special consideration or assistance.
The law states that a homeless student is:
“Any individual who lacks a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
This can include the following scenarios:
- Living in shelters
- Sleeping in cars
- Doubled up with other families
- Living in trailers
- Living in substandard housing units or unsafe buildings
In the context of elementary students, the kids will almost always be living with at least one of their parents, who will be suffering these hardships along with their child.
When it comes to high school students, the young adult may be completely on their own with no daily parental support… “couch surfing” at the homes of friends and acquaintances is very common with this age group.
Leveling the playing field
Federal law states that schools and school systems are responsible for keeping homeless children from falling behind their peers academically. As we all know, there's a lot that goes into school success, and the law touches quite a broad range of services, including:
- Free meals
- Family services
- Transportation (more on this below)
Many of the items that assist homeless families are based upon other federal programs (such as Title 1 or Medicaid), and schools and districts are required to engage with and coordinate these resources for the benefit of homeless students.
Making services accessible
Under the McKinney-Vento act, every state and every district is required to have a liaison…a person who is charged with identifying the children of a homeless family and coordinating the required services.
Many districts don't have a dedicated person. Often the liaison's duties regarding homeless students are part of a broader range of responsibilities.
Homeless students and school transportation
Many of the services provided to a homeless family come under the funding responsibilities of non-school-district budgets. For example, if homeless children qualify for free or reduced lunches, those will be provided by federal programs. The same thing is true of other coordinated services:
- Shelter may come from local charitable organizations or community resources
- Medical care and immunizations may be provided by Medicaid
- Dental or vision care may be provided by a state program
But transportation falls directly upon the resources of the school district, and the expense can be huge.
The McKinney-Vento act recognizes that stability and continuity is extremely important to a child's success in school. Therefore, it specifies that the student must be able to continue in their school of origin if the homeless family chooses – even if they move out of the attendance area for that particular school. And the school district must provide transportation to make that happen.
Much of the funding provided by the act goes toward this critical expense. The “homeless bus” (as it may be called informally in many districts) provides a way to keep kids on track by keeping them in a consistent and familiar academic environment, even if their home situation changes constantly.
As noted in this section, the busing issues may also contribute to your need to make accommodations for homeless students.
Guaranteed by federal law
The law dictates a coordinated set of services and accommodations, and it's been in place for many years because the welfare and stability of children is important as our mobile society takes families across town – and across the country.
That's the big picture, and it's really all you need to know as a classroom teacher. Your local homeless student liaison will of course be much more familiar with the details, which is why classroom teachers need to know how to contact their district resource.