School Law Bulletin #2004/08

Educational Rights of Homeless Children and Youths: The McKinney-Vento Act and Its Impact on North Carolina’s Schools

Friday, October 1, 2004

More than a million children in the United States experience homelessness during the course of a year, a startling figure that begs the question, “What does it mean to be homeless?” School administrators ask this question every day. It is not simply a theoretical issue; for an individual student, the an- swer can make the difference between an extensive bundle of rights and services provided by the local school system and no right to attend the schools at all.

Under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youths Program (here- inafter McKinney-Vento), the phrase “homeless children and youths” refers to “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” and includes children and youths in several specific categories (as detailed in the section below). Although only one of many definitions of the term homeless, the act’s language provides an idea of the scope of a social problem extending beyond conventional notions of homelessness that often evoke images of hobos, bag ladies, and skid row denizens. McKinney-Vento recognizes a more widespread situation and attempts to address, through federal guidance and funding, the obstacles homeless students face in enrolling, attending, and succeeding in school. Linked with other federal programs through Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, McKinney-Vento applies to all states receiving federal funding under the act (currently all states). As a funding statute, McKinney-Vento encourages states to provide homeless children and youths with the same free, appropriate public education, including preschool, re- ceived by other children and youths, and to provide it within the mainstream school environment.

McKinney-Vento grew out of the emergence of family homelessness as a social phenomenon in the 1980s and has evolved with the dramatic increase in the number of home- less people over the past generation. The act in its original form, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act , was passed in 1987 as a comprehensive federal approach to end- ing homelessness through a “continuum of care” strategy.

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