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By Matthew Mundy
LOS ANGELES - When the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act was first approved in 1986, it was hailed as the country’s first serious effort to address the plight of homeless schoolchildren and youth. But more than 20 years after its initial passage, the legislation has failed to live up to its promise, leaving hundreds of thousands – at the very least - of American school kids still underserved and missing out on services imperative to their education.
“I see this problem getting worse,” said Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth in Washington. “There are not new monies being put into the federal budget, and there’s all this mortgage craziness… Our numbers are going to go up, and we’re already not meeting the need.”
The Education for Homeless Children and Youth program of the McKinney-Vento Act, which aims to “improve the educational outcomes for children and youth in homeless educations,” sets its limited funds aside for a diversity of purposes, all working to ensure that that these schoolchildren have the same access to public school education that other students do. Services funded by McKinney-Vento include identification and tracking of children and youth, tutoring, medical services, transportation, record-tracking and transferring, school supplies, educational programs before and after school, and myriad other support programs.
Bush vetoes funding increase
Problems plague school districts in their delivery of these services because lack of funding prevents even the most basic services from being provided efficiently and effectively. Congress last year approved $70 million for McKinney-Vento, but only $61.9 million has been dispersed so far, leaving virtually every school district in every state hard pressed to meet needs.
In Texas, for example, which boasts the country’s largest number of homeless children and youth, and half of all requests from the state’s school districts was left unfunded.
“Last go-around we had for subgrants, we had about $4 million available to give out, and we had requests for about $8 million (in subgrants),” said Barbara Wand James, project director of the Texas Homeless Education Office. “Quite a few people don’t get awarded funds, and there are a lot of kids who need supplemental services that don’t get them.” Wand James is in her 17th year working with homeless students, and she’s troubled that social service agencies, educators and federal and state legislators haven’t yet figured out better solutions to the problems homeless students face. “I thought homelessness would be eliminated, and I would be out of a job, several years ago,” she said with a laugh.
Efforts to increase funding almost always seem to fail. A recent federal bill that would have provided a $5 million increase to the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program was vetoed by President Bush. In order to reach a compromise, most of the funding increases, including the $5 million boost, will in all likelihood have to be halved or eliminated. Advocates are disappointed, but not surprised.
“The program is woefully, woefully underfunded, and it has been throughout its 20-year history,” said Duffield of the national association for homeless children and youth. “Just as there is a lack of awareness about homeless with the public, it’s also an issue with legislators.”
The biggest challenge: counting the homeless
Though the current $70 million federal appropriation is an increase from $4.6 million in the program’s first year in 1987, with 907,000 homeless students reported across the country that year, the current funds provide less than $70 per student. The student allocation is undoubtedly lower given the chronic undercounting of homeless population in general.
Accurately counting homeless students across the country is the most significant problem facing schools and students alike. While states like California and Texas report approximately 170,000 and nearly 200,000 homeless students, respectively, New York state reports just over 26,000. Duffield notes that this is a result of a disorganized and lackluster counting system in the state, and New York is not the only state in the country with glaring undercounts. For example, in 2005-2006 school year, more than 450,000 students were served by McKinney-Vento subgrants, but just over 5 percent of school districts across the nation received any federal money.
“There’s no way that half of all homeless kids live in 5 percent of the school districts,” said Duffield. “I think this shows that if you get the money, it will give resources to identify the kids. Those districts get more resources and are able to identify those kids, do that outreach and identification, and provide the services.”
The amount of money each state receives is based on poverty data, and not necessarily the homeless student count, meaning that some states will see drops in the amount of money they’re receiving, despite recording increases in their student counts. In Oregon, for example, the number of homeless students increased to 13,159 in the 2005-2006 school year from 11,230 students a year earlier. Yet the state saw its McKinney-Vento funds decrease, in part because fewer Oregonians were living in poverty as defined by federal guidelines.
But distribution of the funds isn’t the only issue, Duffield said.
“The problem is not the slices of pie, but that the pie isn’t big enough,” she said, criticizing legislators for failing to see the bigger picture. “There’s a disconnect. There are members of Congress who are supportive of increased funding for education, but don’t understand or know how this program fits into all the other federal education programs.”
Advocates are also worried about what the continued paucity of funding will mean for these students, most of who are already failing proficiency tests in both reading and math, while continuing to face significant social obstacles due to their housing situations.
“If this doesn’t scream no child left behind, I don’t know what does,” said Leslie Croom, who until recently was a member of the United Coalition East Prevention Project in Los Angeles, which does extensive work with homeless students. “If the school is not prepared for… these kids, they’re just going to end up with kids who fall through the cracks.”
The challenge in California
The calamity of homeless education in America is perhaps no better represented than by its most populous state, California, where approximately 170,000 homeless schoolchildren were forced to vie for a scant $8 million in federal funds in the 2005-2006 school year. State authorities acknowledge that the number of homeless students is a gross underestimate, and only includes children aged 5 and older, leaving out a large number of pre-school children.
“This is a hidden tragedy,” said Duffield. “These are kids who are invisible, who are suffering the worst form of poverty in a wealthy nation.”
Even with only 170,000 homeless students identified, California still struggles to provide the necessary resources to students, owing almost entirely to the dearth of funds available to the program’s administrators. Advocates report that one of the many problems produced by the shortage of money and services is the emergence of a troubling, negative worldview among students as their problems continue throughout their schooling.
“When you see them as they get older, they seem to more and more realize their situation, and get more cynical and more guarded,” said Matt Raab, a team leader at Schools on Wheels, a Los Angeles organization that tutors homeless students. “It seems that as the years pass, they seem to get more disillusioned with everything.”
Raab works with students lucky enough to have access to McKinney-Vento funds, a luxury afforded to less than half of the state’s homeless children and youth. Because of the scattered nature of homelessness in the state, the dearth of funds, and the sheer number of school systems hoping to secure McKinney-Vento money, nearly 100,000 homeless California children and youth do not receive any federal assistance through their schools.
Every school district and county office in the state is required to designate a homeless liaison, essentially an advocate who is supposed to ensure that homeless children and youth in their area gain the equal access to education they are legally promised. Unfortunately, the money necessary to make this happen is, quite simply, not there.
“I have almost 1, 400 school districts to make sure they are implementing the law,” said Leanne Wheeler, a consultant with the California Department of School and District Accountability Division who is in charge of distributing the funds and overseeing their use throughout the state. “Making sure that every (school district) implements the law is very difficult.”
Urban vs. rural needs
Out of the 1,382 school systems in the state, only 70 received subgrants for the current school year, leaving about 95 percent of California school districts without funding. When a competitive grant process for McKinney-Vento funds was initiated in 2006, Wheeler received more than 130 applications from school systems throughout the state. She was forced to establish relatively arbitrary maximums for these school district – those with more than 100 homeless children and youth could be eligible to receive $145,000 and those with less, $75,000 – and when she added up all of the money that these applications requested, it exceeded $18 million, more than twice the amount she had to give out. As a result, more than 50 of the applications were denied. Even those school districts that received money from Wheeler’s office didn’t get enough to meet local needs. The Los Angeles Unified School District is probably the most egregious example of this – with about 13,500 homeless schoolchildren, the district only received $128,000 this year, due to an 11 percent decrease from the previous year’s maximum. That works out to less than $10 per child.
“Even the lucky ones are funded less than what they asked for,” said Wheeler. “If we could get more money out to our districts, they could do a better job of serving our kids. They’re doing the best job they can under the circumstances, but if they were to be given more allocations, more money, I think we’d have more people onboard with taking care of these kids.”
Complicating Wheeler’s distribution of funds are the different needs of the school systems themselves, with coastal urban areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco competing with the different needs of the more rural Central Valley cities of Bakersfield and Fresno. “I try really hard to be fair and disperse the money equally between northern, central and Southern California, as well as to urban, suburban and rural environments,” she said. She cited Shasta County in northern California as an example of a county that, while having far less homeless schoolchildren than the Los Angeles Unified School District, faces a host of other problems, including fewer community resources, extreme winters, a lack of regional transit, and a scarcity of potential corporate partners. “I try really hard to be as far as I can, and create a balance,” she said.