On December 10, 2015, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to improve the scholastic opportunities for homeless children. Along with other addendum to its precursor, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act, the act renewed and updated the McKinney-Vento Act, which has aided 1.3 million homeless children enrolled in public school across the United States since 1987. The changes to McKinney-Vento are set to take effect nation-wide on October 1.
“Homeless children and youth face a number of barriers to getting the education they deserve and the services they need to succeed in school and beyond,” U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr said in a statement. “As a kid, home was a scary and unpredictable place for me and I moved around a lot after my parents passed away. I know from my own experience and from my conversations with homeless students that school can save lives. It is our hope that the guidance we are releasing today will serve as a tool to help states and districts better serve homeless children and youth – we can and we must do better.”
According to Sarah Slautterback, homeless education state coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the updated act hopes to improve these children’s lives through a “whole range of changes, some that to a layperson seem small and some more significant.”
Many of these changes are focused on facing the academic, social, and socio-emotional challenges associated with homelessness.
Slautterback explains that the McKinney-Vento Act also “strengthens the role of liaison and ensures that the liaison gets professional development and in turn is able to provide training and professional development within the district.”
Other changes aimed at increasing educational continuity for homeless children include the removal of enrollment barriers that could disproportionately affect homeless individuals and ensuring that students can remain at their school even if they are moved to a shelter in another district. The latter change is particularly important as the NCLB only mandated that homeless students who were enrolled in a preschool had the right to “comparable services” after they were moved to a new shelter, which could nevertheless disrupt the students’ studies and negatively affect their education.
“One of the benefits under McKinney-Vento is that when homeless children get placed in shelter or are doubled up outside their school district they do have the right to return to that school.” explained Slautterback. “in some cases that means they need the transportation to get there so there is some state funding to help support school districts with that effort.”
Concerning funding, Slautterback said that apart from inter-district initiatives and 28 districts in the Commonwealth with large populations of homeless children that receive federal grant funding, the district is responsible for ensuring that children are accessing the local services that they are entitled to. The president of the Boston Teachers’ Union, Richard Stutman, disagrees:
“The total cost for educating homeless children belongs to the state,” Stutman told the Boston Herald. “It’s an issue everyone in the state owns. It’s not a Brookline problem. It’s not a Fall River problem. It’s not a Boston problem.”
Stutman continues to explain that Boston paid 3.8 million to transport homeless students to and from school but was only reimbursed 36 percent by the state. “The main issue is that the state doesn’t fully reimburse transportation costs.”
Despite these claims, Sarah Slautterback maintains that “most educators see that this is a strong benefit for these children and these students and is therefore in their best interests. We don’t get much pushback on that issue. This is all about seeing that children are able to move up and out of the poverty they’ve been in and improve their situation long-term.”