Before passage of the landmark McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act by the U.S. Congress in 1987, more than half of homeless children did not go to school on a regular basis. To see that all children were provided equal access to a free and appropriate education, the McKinney-Vento legislation was enacted that established a federal definition of a "homeless" individual and set out a number of mandates as follows:
- The U.S. Secretary of Education must provide states with grants to offer education services to homeless children
- States must ensure homeless children have equal access to a free, appropriate public education and must enact policies to fulfill this obligation
- Every state must establish an Office of Coordinator for Education of Homeless Children and Youths to oversee state activities, collect data on homeless children in the state, and adopt and carry out a state plan for provision of homeless education services. This office also is required to disburse need-based sub-grants to local education agencies (LEAs) for homeless education programs and activities, on the basis of the homeless youth enrollment within a given district and LEA capacity to provide services to this population. (All LEAs in every state must meet responsibilities specified in the act, regardless of whether or not they receive funds under this act)
- Homeless preschoolers must have a right to a free and appropriate public preschool education (added in 1994 amendment)
- Coordination must take place between school systems and housing authorities (1994 amendment).
Just as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 made substantial changes to the general K-12 education landscape in the United States, so did it modify the McKinney-Vento legislation, which was reauthorized in sections 1031-1034 of the act. Among the significant changes, the new language:
- Changes the definition of "homeless children and youths" to include those sharing housing with family (other than parent/guardian) or others due to "loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason"
- Expressly forbids homeless children from being placed in segregated classes or schools as a result of their homeless status
- Mandates states and districts to adopt language requiring homeless children, upon the parent or liaison's request, to be provided transportation to and from the child's school of origin
- When there is disagreement over school assignment of a homeless child, the child is to be placed in the district requested by the parent or guardian, at least until the dispute is resolved
- Requires school placement to be based on what is in the child's "best interest" — and, to the extent possible, schools must seek to keep the child in the school of origin as long as this is not against the wishes of the parent or guardian
- Requires every LEA, regardless of whether it receives a homeless education sub-grant, to designate a local liaison for homeless children and youth.
Homeless children generally face obvious hardship — frequent mobility, poor nutrition, substandard living conditions, emotional stress and lack of access to health care — in their lives away from school, resulting in unique and sometimes significant academic, health, developmental, psychological and emotional problems in the education setting. While these challenges are not insurmountable, state policymakers must be aware of the singular obstacles faced by this sector of the student population and strive to ensure these children receive a quality educational experience in a secure environment to mitigate, and potentially even overcome, the damage done by homelessness.