Rights of Homeless Students

Estimates suggest that as many as 760,000 Americans are homeless on any given night and up to 2 million experience homelessness each year, among them many children in need of an education. Prior to 1987, there was no federal law or policy addressing the education of homeless children. In 1987, the U.S. Congress took steps to address the issue through the enactment of legislation commonly known as the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act. The law was later renamed as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (hereinafter “McKinney-Vento Act”). The McKinney- Vento Act was reauthorized as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

The McKinney-Vento Act provides that students who find themselves in homeless situations not be excluded from school. The Act defines “Homeless children and youth” as individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, including children and youth who share housing with others due to economic reasons, are living in an emergency or transitional shelter, are abandoned or awaiting foster care, have a primary nighttime residence not designated for or ordinarily used for sleeping, or are living in parks or the like. “Homeless children and youth” also includes migratory children as defined by the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1985. Determinations as to homelessness are made on an individual case-by-case basis.

The McKinney-Vento Act requires that all homeless youth have access to a free and appropriate education. The law requires each state to ensure that each homeless child has equal access to the same free appropriate public education that is provided to other children. The act also directs states to revise laws, regulations, practices, and policies to ensure that barriers to enrollment, attendance, or success of homeless children are removed. The McKinney-Vento Act further provides that homelessness alone is not a sufficient reason to separate students from the mainstream school environment. The act mandates that homeless children have access to the education and services they need to equip them with an opportunity to meet the same academic standards to which all students are held.

Under the McKinney-Vento Act, state agencies must appoint a coordinator of education for homeless children. Moreover, each state is required to adopt a plan to provide for the education of homeless children and youth within that state. State plans must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education. These plans must include assurance that local school districts will comply with the act. The state plans must include descriptions of how their homeless children will be given a chance to meet the same state academic achievement standards as nonhomeless children and how the state educational agency will identify homeless children and help them with their special needs. It must also include programs available for school personnel to heighten their awareness of the needs of homeless children, including runaways; procedures to ensure that homeless children meeting eligibility criteria will be eligible for federal, state, and local food programs; and procedures that ensure homeless children will have equal access to the same educational programs as other children.

In addition, plans must include access to preschool programs, as well as before- and after-school programs, along with assurances that issues such as transportation needs and enrollment delays caused by lack of immunizations, residency, lack of proper documentation, and guardianship are properly addressed. Further, the plans must demonstrate that state and local agencies will remove barriers to enrollment and assurances that homeless students will neither be isolated nor stigmatized.

The McKinney-Vento Act, like many pieces of federal legislation, allocates money to states to distribute in competitive, discretionary grants for programs designed to meet the needs of homeless children. State educational agencies have considerable discretion in awarding grants to local school districts. Grants may be used for the following purposes in regard to the education of homeless students: tutoring and instruction; evaluation of students; professional development activities; referral services for medical, dental, or other health needs; transportation needs; early childhood education; before- or after-school and summer programs; school record tracking; parental training; coordination of services between school and social service agencies; provision of pupil services and referrals to such services; domestic violence prevention; adaptation of physical space and the purchase of school supplies; and emergency or extraordinary assistance.

Local agencies wishing to compete for grant funds must agree to admit homeless children immediately and must appoint a liaison whose job is to identify and assist homeless students and their parents and families in accessing educational services.

The McKinney-Vento Act does not provide direct penalties to states and/or local school agencies that violate the act. The regulation of public education is not done at the federal level, but at the state level. Consequently, as with most federal educational initiatives, the federal government authority to regulate is limited to the withholding of grant funds for states that fail to comply.

Many states have taken steps to comply with the McKinney-Vento Act. The typical state law mirrors the definition of “homeless children and youth” provided in the act. State laws must be consulted in addition to the requirements of the act.

Jon E. Anderson

See also No Child Left Behind Act

Further Readings

  • Colwell, B., & Schwartz, B. (2002). Homeless and alien students: A duty to educate. West’s Education Law Reporter, 165, 447–456. 
  • Goedert, J. G. (2000). The education of homeless children: The McKinney Act and its implications. West’s Education Law Reporter, 140, 9–19. 
  • National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. (2005). Educating homeless children and youth: The 2005 guide to their rights. Washington, DC: Author. 
  • U.S. Department of Education. (2004). Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program, Title VII-B of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, Non- Regulatory Guidance. Washington, DC: Author. Available from http://www.ed.gov/programs/homeless/guidance.doc 

Legal Citations

  • Elementary and Secondary Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 6301 et seq. 
  • McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, 42 U.S.C §§ 11431 et seq.