Published: 30-06-2011, 05:05

Homeless children - American Education

In education, the status of being without a legal residence, which, until 1987, rendered a child or youth legally ineligible to enroll in public schools in districts and states with specific residency requirements. In 1987, however, Congress passed the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (subsequently reauthorized as part of the NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND ACT OF 2001), requiring states to ensure that every homeless child has equal access to the same public school education as other children.
There is a far greater variety, if not number, of homeless children than adults. Homeless children may be abandoned “throwaways,” orphaned children, runaways, victims of natural disasters such as hurricanes or earthquakes or victims of man-made disasters such as fires. They may also be children of homeless parents, migrant workers or transients who, for whatever reason, have no legal residence in a school district where local laws long made nonresident children ineligible to attend school. Although all 50 states have long had compulsory education laws, some specifically apply to only state residents. Passage of the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act aimed at eliminating such barriers by guaranteeing each homeless child access to the nearest public school and requiring public schools to eliminate all obstacles to the child’s education, such as requirements for previous school records, proof of residency, or lack of transportation. The law also forbids segregating homeless children from the rest of the school’s student body.
Granting homeless children access to public schools, however, is not the same as requiring their attendance, and, despite compulsory education laws, many agricultural states provide specific exemptions to children working for their parents in agriculture—an exemption dating back to the days when family farms dominated the economy of most states and few farmers could spare their children during planting and harvest seasons. Today’s growers, however, enlist adult migrant workers—almost always as independent contractors, who, in turn, depend on their children to help work the fields on a piecework basis to maximize family income. Such children seldom, if ever, seek access to nearby schools. Usually the children of poor immigrants, few such children have ever attended school on a regular basis, and few remain long enough to permit continuity in their education. Many appear at school illclothed, lacking social skills, unable to speak more than a few words of English and far behind their age-mates academically. Most require costly, specialized education. Parent/ school cooperation is usually impossible because of lack of telephones or other means of communications in the family’s temporary living quarters.
Statistics for homelessness among children are as inaccurate as statistics for homelessness among adults. Various vested interests benefit from reporting total homelessness as low as possible (government, chambers of commerce and others who deny the scope of social ills) or as high as possible (public and private social welfare agencies and for-profit suppliers of housing, food and other materials). In 1990, total homelessness, for example, was reported variously from 200,000 to 5 million. The U.S. Census Bureau attempted to visit more than 10,000 shelters and 25,000 street sites to extrapolate the number of homeless and came up with a figure 228,621, but in 2000 the U.S. Department of Education estimated that there were at least 220,000 homeless children in the United States, of whom more than 65,000 did not attend school regularly. In 2004, however, the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty estimated the number of homeless in the United States at 3.5 million, 1.35 million of them children.
Most such counts, however, are limited to people in soup kitchens or shelters or on the streets, so the method fails to include the homeless who find food and lodging elsewhere or, for whatever reasons, are unable to gain entry to or find shelters. Also skewing efforts to count the actual homeless are natural disasters such as the September 2005 hurricanes that left tens of thousands homeless in Louisiana and Mississippi—and untold numbers of children without access to schools.