February 12, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 7

Feature

Lawmakers consider two bills aimed at boosting the odds for homeless students

By Aaron Burkhalter , Staff Reporter

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Two proposals before the Washington State Legislature aim to take the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act up a notch.

Enacted in 1987, McKinney-Vento helped create consistency for homeless students in the classroom. The law requires that public schools enroll homeless students quickly, even if they have no permanent address, and that districts pay to transport students to the school while they are homeless, no matter where they move. The law allows students to maintain the same teachers and peers.

Two proposals in Olympia would take this support to the next level, providing housing assistance and case management to families near their home schools. If either proposal passes, some Washington families will be able to keep their schools and their home communities.

Senate Bill 6338 will give projects that involve collaboration between school districts and housing authorities priority for Housing Trust Fund dollars. The Housing Trust Fund provides state funds to build new low-income housing projects.

Senate Bill 6365 will create a pilot program with $300,000 to help link schools with nearby low-income housing providers.

Both bills attempt to recreate a program at the Tacoma Housing Authority and McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma. The housing authority selected 50 low-income families from McCarver Elementary in 2011 to receive rental assistance for apartments near the school. By creating housing near the school, the program prevents what happens to many homeless families: They find housing in another community, and the school pays for a town car to drive the student to their home school.

Proponents say the program helped students improve grades and their parents become financially self-sufficient, while saving transportation money for the school districts. The Seattle school district spends more than $1 million annually on transportation for students through the McKinney-Vento Act.

By tying schools to housing, students have a more consistent experience, said Michael Power, manager of the Tacoma Housing Authority’s educational programs, at a senate hearing Feb. 4.

“Every time a child switches school, their chance of dropping out increases 8 percent,” Power said.

Even if a child stays in the same school, mobility is stressful, said Beth Shinn, a Vanderbilt University professor who studies academic achievement among homeless students. (“Nickelsville Elementary,” RC, Nov. 27, 2013)

In Seattle and around the nation, the number of homeless students in public schools has been rising for years. In 2007, Seattle Public Schools knew of 930 homeless students; now there are an estimated 2,370.

Statewide, the number of homeless students is also on the rise. In 2007, Washington state estimated there were more than 18,000 homeless students. In 2013, the number grew to more than 30,000.

Studies show that homeless children score six percentile points lower than their housed peers in reading and math tests, largely due to constant moving and poor class attendance. According to the U.S. Department of Education, half of homeless students do not meet their state’s test score standards.

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