A coalition of nine homeless and child advocacy organizations is pushing a bill to expand the education of homeless children and youth.
They're trying to do so by amending the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act - specifically, the act's Education of Homeless Children and Youth Program, which removes barriers to public education through such measures as waiving permanent address enrollment requirements and allowing children to remain at the school they attended before they became homeless. The act is up for reauthorization.
A 1995 evaluation of the program published by the U.S. Department of Education (DoE), which administers it, found that access to school by homeless children and youth had improved greatly since the act was passed in 1987. However, the report also concluded that the program did not receive sufficient funding to meet demand.
Today, McKinney funding reaches less than 37 percent of homeless youth, says Barbara Duffield, education director of the D.C.-based National Coalition for the Homeless, one of the groups backing the bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.).
According to the DoE, 12 percent of school-aged children who are homeless are not enrolled in any school during their periods of homelessness, and 45 percent do not attend school on a regular basis while homeless.
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Act of 2001 (HR 623) would, among other things, strengthen the educational rights of unaccompanied youth, promote the integration of homeless children and youth into mainstream schools and triple the funding for Education for Homeless Children and Youth programs (from $30 million to $90 million).
The coalition supporting the changes includes the Child Welfare League of America, the Children's Defense Fund, the Institute for Children and Poverty, Catholic Charities USA, the National Alliance to End Homelessness, the National Coalition for the Homeless and the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.
The bill addresses "a huge number of issues that we have seen both through our research and through our program work in local communities," says Dawn Jahn Moses, director of public policy for the Better Homes Fund, a Newton, Mass.-based nonprofit that fights family homelessness through research and field work.
Though not a cure-all, Moses predicts the legislation "will make a monumental difference" for homeless children and youth.
The fate of the bill may ride on the congressional version of President Bush's education proposal. In 1999, it was the McKinney reauthorization's link to a broader education package that sank it in the Senate, says Chris Close, Biggert's press secretary.
But the McKinney expansion bill has inspired some controversy itself. "I think that the segregation piece is really going to be the biggy," says Andrea Palm, government relations manager at Volunteers of America, adding, "there might be some debate over the funding level."
The so-called "segregation piece" is the part of the bill that calls for the termination of federal funding for schools that exclusively serve homeless children and youth. The McKinney-Vento Act prohibits such funding for new separate schools, but allows funding for established schools, of which there are currently about 40 around the country, such as, according to Close, the Pappas School in Tucson, Ariz.
Also, while the VOA's Palm feels that more money is needed to improve educational access for homeless youth, she is skeptical that the Senate would triple funding.
Much of the McKinney reauthorization bill is modeled after legislation passed in Illinois. But there is one exception, says Palm: transportation. Illinois has an expansive (and expensive) system which guarantees transportation to school for homeless youth. Why can't federal law replicate this? "It really is about how much it costs," says Palm. "The federal government does not feel comfortable telling states" to spend that much money.
Close and Palm emphasize that the bill gives states a lot of flexibility to spend McKinney funds as they see fit.
The bill's Senate equivalent is the Better Education for Students and Teachers (BEST) Act. The House bill will be included in the Elementary and Secondary Education package.
The late Stuart McKinney (R-Conn.) was the chief Republican sponsor of the bill that was named after him in 1987, but renamed "McKinney-Vento" in honor of Rep. Bruce Vento (D-Minn.), another education for the homeless supporter, who died last year.
- Amy Bracken