Classrooms are full of activity as students return for the start of a new academic year. For many children who struggle with homelessness, going back to school means returning to the one place that can provide stability.
According to the Montana Office of Public Instruction (OPI), 3,606 students experienced homelessness during the 2016-2017 school year, up from 1,487 during the 2010-2011 school year. The spike in students counted as homeless is largely a result of improved identifying and reporting practices, officials say, and these numbers will likely increase as schools do a better job of recognizing and reporting them as children who already meet this standard are being newly counted.
The experience of homelessness severely impacts a child’s ability to stay in school and gain the education they need to succeed later in life. These children experience increased school mobility than their non-homeless peers and this mobility can cause interruptions to education, putting them at increased risk of lower academic achievement, being chronically absent, and being held back a grade or dropping out altogether. Only 61 percent of homeless students graduated from high school on time last year compared to 86 percent of all high school students in Montana.
The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act passed in 1987. In 2015, the Every Child Succeeds Act amended the McKinney-Vento Act and is the primary piece of legislation related to the educational rights and protections of children and youth experiencing homelessness. Under McKinney-Vento, youth are considered homeless when they “lack a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence.” While this definition includes children living in emergency shelters, hotels or motels, cars, campgrounds, the majority of Montana students, 71 percent, without a permanent address are “doubled-up,” living with other family or friends due to economic hardship or loss of housing.
The McKinney-Vento Act attempts to mitigate the negative effects of mobility created by housing instability by requiring states and school districts to remove barriers to identification, stability and the academic success of homeless students. These actions include requiring local education agencies to employ a homeless liaison who connects students to the services and resources they’re entitled to (such as nutrition assistance and after-school care) and that schools make reasonable efforts to ensure that homeless children remain stable in their school of origin, including providing transportation.
The McKinney-Vento Act makes funding available for public schools to implement these requirements and this grant program is the biggest source of funding available in Montana to serve homeless students. While every homeless student is eligible to be served by McKinney-Vento, the federal resources allocated to this program remain insufficient to reach all the children who qualify. This severely limits the program’s success. For the 2016-2017 school year, OPI had $204,000 in McKinney Vento funds that was distributed to 13 schools across the state through a competitive grant process. This equates to $35 per student, which clearly isn't enough.
The amount of McKinney-Vento dollars received is in large part based on how many students are reported as homeless. Therefore, Montana’s effort to better equip teachers and counselors with the tools they need to identify these children will make a huge impact for our school’s ability to serve more students. Montana schools are making significant strides towards identifying and reporting the true number of students who are without a safe and consistent place to live. However, schools can only do so much for our children without the dollars they need to fully meet the scope of the crisis.
By providing a safe and consistent place to learn and access to caring adults, schools are uniquely positioned to identify students in need of help and connect them to the resources that will allow them to succeed in school and stabilize their lives. The funding provided by McKinney-Vento is needed now more than ever, as homelessness among children and families shows no sign of abating any time soon.
MBPC is a nonprofit organization focused on providing credible and timely research and analysis on budget, tax, and economic issues that impact low- and moderate-income Montana families.