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The McKinney-Vento Act Helps Thousands of Students Every Year. How Could It Help Even More?

Highlighted by the Biden-Harris administration’s announcement of its “All In” campaign to reduce homelessness nationwide by 25 percent, homelessness is now one of Americans’ top issues. With the rise in concern over homelessness, there’s also renewed focus on children experiencing homelessness and the issues they face.

Created in 1987 in response to growing concern over housing stability among school-aged children, the McKinney-Vento Act tries to ensure that children experiencing homelessness have equal access to educational opportunities, despite their housing instability challenges. It aims to serve the more than one million students identified every year as experiencing homelessness.

Although the McKinney-Vento Act plays an important role in protecting the educational rights of youth experiencing homelessness, it’s been criticized for lacking necessary resources and for implementation challenges.

By improving strategies for identifying eligible students, increasing awareness and funding for its services, and ensuring compliance, the McKinney-Vento Act could break down more barriers to education and serve students experiencing homelessness more effectively.

What is the McKinney-Vento Act?

The McKinney-Vento Act includes the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) Program, which outlines several rights that eligible children should have regarding their education. These include the right to the following:

  • immediate school enrollment, even when documents normally required are missing, such as immunization records or proof of residence
  • ability to remain in their school of origin, even if they’re not living in the area anymore
  • free transportation to and from the school of origin and any extracurriculars
  • support for academic success, including access to a district program liaison

The EHCY program provides more than $100 million dollars (PDF) in annual federal funding for states to spend on program implementation, service provision, purchasing school supplies, and other activities related to educating youth experiencing homelessness. States receive funding (PDF) proportional to their Title I, Part A funding (which is funding for educational agencies to support children from families with low incomes) and then distribute these funds to individual school districts through a competitive subgrant process.

The McKinney-Vento Act and the EHCY program has also been amended several times since its inception. Its two most recent amendments came in 2002 and 2015 as part of the No Child Left Behind and Every Student Succeeds Acts. These amendments strengthened legal protections around the EHCY program and added additional requirements, such as requiring all school districts to appoint a local liaison to coordinate services for students and expanding protections to include preschools.

Who is eligible for the EHCY Program?

The McKinney-Vento Act defines the term “homeless children and youth” as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This definition includes children who are:

  • sharing housing due to economic hardship or loss of housing (e.g. doubled-up)
  • living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or campgrounds
  • living in emergency or transitional shelters
  • sleeping in places unfit for human habitation (e.g. park benches)
  • living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations, and others

This definition differs from the standard definition of homelessness the US Department of Housing and Urban Development uses, which generally doesn’t count people living in hotels, motels, and doubled-up situations. With this expanded definition, the US Department of Education identified more than a million students experiencing homelessness in the 2020–21 school year.

What challenges exist for the EHCY Program?

As such a large and complex piece of federal legislation, several issues hinder the McKinney-Vento Act and the EHCY Program’s implementation.

Because of the fluid and complex nature of youth homelessness, it’s difficult to get an accurate count of the number of eligible children and those who’ve been served under the EHCY program. A recent analysis found that though the number of identified students experiencing homelessness is down from previous years, the actual number of children and youth experiencing homelessness has likely increased because of the pandemic and economic crisis.

Students who may be eligible for assistance under the EHCY Program are also often either reluctant to disclose their homeless status or are unaware of their eligibility. This can result in students having to bear unnecessary burdens around transportation and food costs, while program dollars have to be spent on outreach, rather than service provision.

The EHCY Program district liaisons also often experience implementation difficulties. EHCY Liaisons often report (PDF) needing additional technical assistance to understand the program’s legal requirements and collect and report data about students experiencing homelessness. Limited staff capacity and other logistical challenges, like having to coordinate complex travel arrangements, were also issues reported by district liaisons.

Altogether, these issues often prevent school districts and their liaisons from identifying all eligible students and providing the necessary resources and services needed to address their students’ needs.

What can strengthen the McKinney-Vento Act and EHCY Program?

A few changes to the EHCY Program’s practices and processes could help it better identify and reach all eligible students, as well as provide improved services:

  • Engaging community stakeholders to advance knowledge and awareness of the McKinney-Vento Act and its protections
    One of the issues most commonly found with the EHCY Program is a lack of awareness about the program and the services students experiencing homelessness are entitled to. In one school district known for having a well-run EHCY Program, the local program liaison notes that their efforts to build support among school leadership and to coordinate efforts between community organizations led to better service provision and increased awareness around student homelessness.
  • Increasing funding to allow school districts and program liaisons to meet their students’ needs
    To address potential resource and capacity shortages with the EHCY, President Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief – Homeless Children and Youth Fund in March 2021. This act will distribute $800 million dollars in funding to state and local education agencies (LEAs) to support the specific needs of children and youth experiencing homelessness. States and LEAs have already outlined plans for the funding that include increasing outreach and identification of students experiencing homelessness, improving training and technical assistance for school staff, and developing better data systems to support decision-making.
  • Improve training for school and district officials to ensure compliance with the EHCY Program
    Strategies such as developing a single systematic source for training staff on the needs of students experiencing homelessness, increasing the number and capacity of program liaisons, and developing a monitoring and tracking system to ensure compliance are all actions that have been recommended to improve program implementation.

With the recent influx of both public concern and funding for youth experiencing homelessness, now is a vital opportunity to create meaningful change for these youth and their educational outcomes. The McKinney-Vento Act has key protections for students, but with improved implementation and collaboration with other recent homelessness initiatives, it could help thousands more.