Federal law promises homeless children an equal shot at education. Many fall through the cracks.
For months, Beth Petersen paid acquaintances to take her son to school — money she sorely needed. They’d lost their apartment, her son bouncing between relatives and friends while she hotel-hopped. As hard as she tried to keep the 13-year-old at his school, they finally had to switch districts.
Under federal law, Petersen’s son had a right to free transportation — and to remain in the school he attended at the time he lost permanent housing. But no one told Petersen that.
“They should have been sending a bus for him. … He’s missed so much school I can’t believe it,” Petersen said. “And school is stability.”
A Center for Public Integrity analysis of district-level federal education data suggests roughly 300,000 students entitled to essential rights reserved for homeless students have slipped through the cracks, unidentified by the school districts mandated to help them.
Some 2,400 districts — from regions synonymous with economic hardship to big cities and prosperous suburbs — did not report having even one homeless student despite levels of financial need that make those figures improbable.
And many more districts are likely undercounting the number of homeless students they do identify. In nearly half of states, tallies of student homelessness bear no relationship with poverty, a sign of just how inconsistent the identification of kids with unstable housing can be.
The reasons include a federal law so little-known that people charged with implementing it often fail to follow the rules; nearly non-existent enforcement of the law by federal and state governments; and funding so meager that districts have little incentive to survey whether students have stable housing.
“It’s a largely invisible population,” said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit focused on homeless education. “The national conversation on homelessness is focused on single adults who are very visible in large urban areas. It is not focused on children, youth and families. It is not focused on education.”
Losing a home can be a critical turning point in a child’s life. That’s why schools are required to provide extra support.
Nationwide, homeless students graduate at lower rates than average, blunting their opportunities for stable jobs and increasing the risk of continued housing insecurity in adulthood.
The gap is often stark: In 18 states, graduation rates for students who experienced homelessness lagged more than 20 percentage points behind the overall rate in both 2017 and 2018.
Until recently, it was not clear from federal records which students were hit hardest by housing instability. Data disclosed in U.S. Department of Education reports revealed nothing about the race or ethnicity of students recognized by their school districts as homeless.
That changed in the 2019-20 school year when the federal government for the first time made public the race and ethnicity breakdowns for individual school districts. The pattern that emerged is a story of the country’s sharp inequities, which put some families at far higher risk of homelessness than others.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, first enacted in 1987 and expanded in 2001, requires that districts take specific actions to help unstably housed students complete school. Districts must waive enrollment requirements, such as immunization forms, that could keep kids out of the classroom. They must refer families to health care and housing services. And they must provide transportation so children can remain in the school they attended before they became homeless, even if they’re now outside the attendance boundaries.
Earl Edwards, an assistant professor at Boston College’s School of Education and Human Development, argues that McKinney-Vento was premised on an idea still pervasive in the policy debate on homelessness: Like a tornado that levels towns at random, housing misfortune has an equal chance of afflicting anyone, regardless of who they are.
In the 1980s, that rhetoric was a potent argument in favor of expanded federal support for homeless services. It was also wrong.
An inadequate policy
The McKinney Act — later renamed — took shape at a time when the Reagan administration, if it acknowledged homeless people at all, regarded them as having chosen a life on urban skid rows, said Maria Foscarinis, who helped write the law.
Foscarinis, the founder of the National Homelessness Law Center, reframed homelessness as a broader structural problem impacting families, people of all races, even suburbanites. The outcome was a race-neutral solution, despite data at the time that went counter to that theory.
Foscarinis said the law’s architects knew it was inadequate and planned to follow it with homeless prevention programs and housing. But they faced stiff resistance. It would have been better to include race-conscious language tracking the demographics of homeless children, she added, but doing so could have jeopardized the entire effort.
“Had we done that, it would have torpedoed the whole thing, which would have hurt Black communities even more,” she said. “Then, we would have nothing at all.”