March 19, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 12

News

Olympia passes only the most basic legislation to help homeless students

By Aaron Burkhalter / Staff Reporter

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The Washington State Legislature passed a bill that requires public schools and the state superintendent to better identify homeless students in the public schools and report on their academic achievement.

Under the new law, teachers will get training to help them recognize the signs of homelessness, and public schools will be required to provide homeless students and families with information on how to access services.

The law also requires the state superintendent to report on the academic performance of homeless students, including test scores, drop-out rates, graduation rates and attendance.

An estimated 30,000 homeless students attended Washington public schools in 2013, according to the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. Staff members at Columbia Legal Services and law students at the University of Washington think that number is short by thousands of students and proposed this law to get a better estimate.

The legislature sent the bill for Gov. Jay Inslee’s signature on March 12.

The bill was one of three bills in the legislature this session meant to improve efforts to help homeless students attending public schools in Washington. It was also the only bill that passed.

Two other proposals linking affordable housing nonprofits to public schools did not make it out of the committee for a floor vote. One would have created a pilot program with $300,000 to link schools with nearby housing providers. The other would have prioritized affordable housing projects linked to public schools for funding from the state’s Housing Trust Fund.

The failed bills attempted to recreate a $3 million pilot program at the Tacoma Housing Authority and McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma. The housing authority selected 50 low-income families in 2011 to live in the community with rental assistance and have their children attend McCarver Elementary, one of the poorest schools in Tacoma. 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 and from school.

The first 50 families agreed to stay on the program for five years. In just two and a half years, the students’ grades are up and the student turnover rate at the school has decreased.

All three bills were meant to take the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act up a notch for Washington students. 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.

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