You may not know them, but they’re there, in your schools, every day.
Since 2006, the number of homeless students in Washington has surged — from 16,850 eight years ago, to more than 30,600 today. They’re living in shelters, shuttling between the homes of friends or relatives — a week here, a month there — or waiting to be placed in foster care.
For these kids, school can provide an essential lifeline of comparative stability, which was the thinking behind the 1987 McKinney-Vento law. The federal legislation allows kids to stay enrolled in their neighborhood school, even as their lives outside send them hither and yon. The law also says that districts must pay to transport homeless students from wherever they’re living back to school — no matter how far.
To pay for this, Washington gets a paltry $950,000 every three years, which districts must divide, though it hardly covers the full expense. Seattle alone spent $1.2 million to transport homeless students in 2012; Tacoma, more than $1.5 million. Statewide, the full tab was nearly $17 million.
But a team of public-interest lawyers suggests that some outside-the-box thinking could cut those costs: What if districts were allowed to put some of their transportation budget toward paying for homeless-student housing close by? Yes, it could reduce transportation costs. But perhaps even more important, it might dramatically improve academic outcomes.
Currently, those outcomes are dismal: A report last month from the Department of Social and Health Services found that the more times students move, the more likely they are to be placed in special education. Meanwhile, their graduation rates plunge, and their involvement with the criminal justice system surges, from 7 to 48 percent.
If Seattle could use even 20 percent of its homeless-student transportation budget on $500 rent subsidies, the district would be able to provide stable housing for 48 families, the lawyers say, thereby saving thousands of dollars.
“The numbers of homeless kids keep increasing, and it’s not just an urban problem,” said Katara Jordan, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services, which plans to propose this financial fix during the next legislative session. “A third of homeless students are in rural counties. It happens in the suburbs, everywhere. As a state, we need to come up with solutions.”