“Government Cuts Funding for Homeless Youth Education”, Wicked Local, May 2014

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Government Cuts Funding for Homeless Youth Education

Milo Todd

This article originally appeared in Wicked Local, May 2014.

According to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless: “As of May 6, 2014, there were approximately 4,600 families with children and pregnant women in Massachusetts’ Emergency Assistance (EA) shelter program. 1,891 of these families with children were being sheltered in motels. This number does not count those families who are doubled up, living in unsafe conditions, or sleeping in their cars—or many of the 5,400 families who have or will have time out of the state’s HomeBASE rental assistance program during fiscal year 2014.”

The MA Coalition has further estimated that there are “over 44,000 students of all ages experiencing homelessness who are enrolled in Massachusetts public schools. In the 2011-2012 academic year, public schools across Massachusetts were able to identify and serve 15,085 students who were experiencing homelessness.”

That’s quite a few children who, quite frankly, still need their schooling. But if parents thought getting their children to school was difficult enough, it becomes significantly harder without a home. This is why the United States has long since come up with the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act (or “McKinney” for short), which is meant to help ease some of this burden.

According to the Children’s Law Center of Massachusetts, “McKinney is a federal law that requires all homeless youth to have access to the same free and appropriate public education that is provided to all other children. McKinney states that homelessness alone is not a sufficient reason to separate students from the mainstream school environment….McKinney also provides the States with money to distribute to programs created to meet the needs of homeless children. Each homeless youth is entitled to the education and services that will ensure them an opportunity to meet the same state standards to which all other students are held.”

As far as Massachusetts is concerned, these needs primarily focus on school lunches and busing. “Homeless children who attend the school assigned to them by the local school district are entitled to the same school transportation that is offered to other children in the district,” the Children’s Law Center continues. “If a child is homeless, the local school may transport them to/from their school of attendance.”

So everything should be pretty well figured out: Kids need schooling, kids get schooling, public schools momentarily foot the bill, public schools get reimbursed by the state within the next fiscal year.

Problem is, as of 2014, that’s not what’s happening.

The Problem

Jacqueline Reis, the Media Relations Coordinator for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, compared the numbers of the 2014 fiscal year to that of 2013.

“In terms of food, districts can receive reimbursement of $2.93 per lunch and $1.58 per breakfast when they provide homeless students with free meals, which is the same amount of reimbursement they receive for meals for any other low-income students,” she said. But while the reimbursement of meals evens out, the reimbursement for busing is a whole different matter.

“The MA legislature allocated funds for homeless student transportation starting in fiscal year 2013,” said Reis. “Homeless transportation reimbursement in the current year is for last year’s expenses. Districts report their fiscal year 2013 expenses and are reimbursed in the 4th quarter of fiscal year 2014. The appropriation for fiscal year 2014 homeless transportation reimbursement was funded at $7,350,000, a decrease of $3.95 million. Payments will be made to districts based on reported expenses on the fiscal year 2013 end-of-year financial returns. The final reimbursement percentage in fiscal year 2013 was 94.07 percent for homeless transportation. The fiscal year 2014 line item funding will enable us to reimburse districts between 55-58 percent.”

The short version: As of this year, the transportation reimbursement for the busing of homeless youths is being cut nearly in half. And busing 15,000+ children doesn’t come cheap.

“This type of funding-related cut causes a series of starts and stops, disrupting routine and impacting a homeless family well beyond the issue of transportation. It puts one more barrier in front of homeless children being able to succeed in school and life,” said Dianne Luby, CEO and President of Horizons for Homeless Children, which is an organization that strives to provide an education to preschool-aged homeless children.

“We serve homeless children aged 2 months up to 6 years, which is a critical time in their development,” said Luby. “We know from extensive research that children who are homeless experience trauma that can cause disruption in their cognitive, motor and social development. Homeless children are eight times more likely to be asked to repeat a grade, three times more likely to be placed in special education-track classes and two times more likely to score low on standardized assessments. Therefore, early education is essential.”

Like public schools, Horizons is another institution that struggles to meet its financial needs. “Over 70% of our revenue at Horizons for Homeless Children is based on individual giving. While we receive some government funding, it is not enough to meet the needs of the growing homeless population in Massachusetts.”

Government workers have been attempting to at least make the transportation burden more equal by spreading out the number of homeless children per school, but the concepts of housing and placement are more complicated than just moving from Point A to Point B.

“There are a number of factors that go into placement,” said Matthew Sheaff, the Director of Communications for the Massachusetts Department of Housing and Community Development. “These include the size of the family, what community they are from, are there any ADA requirements, is a member of this family fleeing domestic violence, where do we have open space to accommodate the family, and more. It’s always our goal to try to keep a family within 20 miles of their place of origin. Sometimes, because of other factors, that is hard to do.”

Availability of placement aside, there are also the child’s own education and needs to consider.

“Studies have shown that students who stay in the same school system and are not subjected to multiple transfers do better academically. These children are already facing huge upheavals in their lives so many choose to stay in the same school,” said State Representative Paul Heroux. “When a child’s family faces homelessness and is moved into emergency shelters, the parent of the child can opt to transfer schools or remain in the original school district and be bussed to and from the original school district. Often, the temporary shelters are not located within the same town, so the busing costs can become astronomical.”

The (Attempted) Solution

“Several legislators are working to increase the McKinney transportation reimbursements to cities and towns during the upcoming fiscal year, which will begin on July 1st,” said Kelly Turley, the Director of Legislative Advocacy for the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless. This would involve “amendments #999 and #747, which would also increase the funding to $14.9 million,” along with amendment #772. “The House debated amendments this past week, and the Senate will release and debate their version in May.”

All three amendments essentially say the same thing, in which there’s a move to amend the bill “by striking out the figures ‘$7,350,000’ and inserting in place thereof the figures ‘$14,878,069’,” thereby doubling the much-needed funding for schools—exactly the amount they’re lacking due to the cut.

One of the legislators working on the McKinney reimbursement is State Representative Paul Heroux, who has been attempting to tack back on the funds public schools and organizations such as Horizons need.

“Now the budget moves to the Senate, where more than likely a senator will file an amendment requesting the funding as well. Once it passes the Senate, it would go to conference committee where I and the senator who filed the amendment would advocate that it be included in the final version of the budget, which goes to the House and Senate once more for a vote and then onto the governor,” said Heroux. “I did face some difficulties in getting it included in the House budget. Money was tight this year and many programs that were typically funded were not.”

“The state should be fully funding homeless student transportation as per the McKinney. As of now, municipalities are reimbursed less than .50 cents to every $1 that they spend busing the students, placing a huge financial burden on them,” said Heroux. “We did not get any additional funding for [the amendments], but we will try again in an upcoming supplemental budget.”

“The homeless family population continues to grow, yet government funding continues to dwindle,” said Luby. “This is distressing, especially when you consider the overall impact this will have on all of our communities in the state.”

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