This article was produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity, The Seattle Times, Street Sense Media and WAMU/DCist.
Washington state has one of the largest homeless student populations in the country — 40,000 just prior to the pandemic. Yet, Washington school districts in the 2018-19 school year received an average of $29 per homeless student from one of the main federal funds for homeless students to pay for transportation, books, extracurriculars or any other need they can’t afford.
Vermont, which has about 1,000 homeless students, received $211 each.
In fact, Washington received the lowest amount per homeless student of any state that year. The McKinney-Vento Act, passed in 1987, requires districts across the country to identify students who are homeless, and provides some grants to districts to help support them.
Washington excels at this identification — and pays a price for it.
That’s due to a paradox in how McKinney-Vento funding is allocated. The funding does not increase even if the population it’s trying to help does. State officials say this disparity likely puts Washington’s homeless students at a disadvantage compared with those in other states. Experts agree, calling the formula flawed for inadvertently penalizing states that make the greatest efforts to identify students who might need these resources.
Nationally, states receive $60 per homeless student on average. If Washington were awarded that for its homeless student population, the state would have received double what it did in the 2018-19 school year — an extra $1.2 million.
“There’s something not quite right about it,” said Liza Rankin, vice president of the Seattle School Board.
Looking at her district’s graduation rates for homeless students — 64% compared with 87% for the overall student body — Rankin says that “clearly is showing they’re not being provided with what they need.”
A Seattle Times partnership with the Center for Public Integrity has shown that those extra funds could potentially change the lives of Washington’s homeless students, who graduate in smaller numbers, score lower on tests and are disciplined more than their housed peers.
One school district in Lacey was able to raise homeless student graduation rates by more than 15% with just a few extra support staff paid for by money it raised through competitive grants and from the community and pandemic relief funding, giving their students a better chance at avoiding homelessness later in life.
Some advocates and experts are calling for change in the way McKinney-Vento funding is distributed, to be based at least partially on the count of each state’s homeless students.
But those same experts say that improvement would be marginal. With the total pie of homeless student funding so small — at most, less than 1% of the federal education budget — they say states with a homeless population as great as Washington’s could divert resources from other states that also need support.
How Washington loses out
Washington state has made a strong push to identify more of its homeless students in the past decade. And it has worked.
Washington has become a leader nationwide in identifying student homelessness, according to Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a national advocacy nonprofit for homeless students. She said that’s been the result of consistent training for school staff on how to spot signs of homelessness, such as chronic tardiness or wearing the same clothes every day.
Washington also passed a law in 2016 that requires each school building to designate a staff member as a “point of contact” who is responsible for identifying homeless students. The state goes further in being one of a few that provide state-level homelessness funding in addition to the federal dollars to school districts.
Those resources provide more staff in Washington who can identify unhoused students, Duffield said.
Between 2008 and the start of the pandemic, the number of identified homeless students in Washington doubled from 20,000 to 40,000. Washington state accounts for about 3% of all identified homeless students nationwide. An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity shows there are likely 300,000 unidentified homeless students across the country, with less than 1% of those in Washington.
Yet that made no difference to the amount of federal homeless student funding Washington received.
“A state like Washington that does a good job of identification does not receive an increase in [McKinney-Vento] funding even if an obvious need has been demonstrated,” said Katy Payne, a spokesperson for the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
That’s because the funding is based largely on a state’s number of school-age children living in poverty — measured by the U.S. census — not the number of homeless students.
That means each student identified gets a smaller slice of the pie.
Oregon, Utah, California and Nevada also excel at identifying homeless students, and also receive a low amount of McKinney-Vento funding per student, according to the Center for Public Integrity analysis.
Formula “feels unfair”
“It feels unfair,” said Jennifer Erb-Downward, director of housing stability programs and policy initiatives at the University of Michigan’s Poverty Solutions, who researches student homelessness.
The McKinney-Vento funding formula disincentivizes school districts from improving identification of homeless students, Erb-Downward said, because the districts would have to then pay for more of the supportive services those students are entitled to by law, and it would likely come out of the districts’ pockets, which are often already stretched thin.
One of the main provisions of the McKinney-Vento Act requires school districts to provide free transportation to homeless students, who are also allowed to stay enrolled at the same school they were attending when they first became homeless, even if they’ve moved neighborhoods or cities. Those rights can get expensive for school districts to provide.
In the 2018-19 school year, Washington school districts reported they spent more than $32 million to transport homeless students to and from school.
In many states, school districts are often left to find those funds wherever they can.
Washington state reimburses school districts for travel. But in 2019, the state auditor’s office found that this reimbursement for homeless student travel costs did not fully cover expenses for half of districts, with some getting reimbursed only 60% of their costs.
For example, in the 2019-20 school year, Evergreen Public Schools in Vancouver said the state’s reimbursement for its homeless student transportation was more than $300,000 short. The district filled this gap using a local tax levy.
The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction said it could not determine if Evergreen’s claim was accurate but said it has proposed to the Washington Legislature that the state move to a new funding model that would cover more of those transportation costs.
Districts get by piecemeal
As it stands, less than 15% of Washington school districts receive any federal McKinney-Vento funding for homeless students. At the same time, districts said they spent more than $28 million for that population in the 2018-19 school year, according to a survey by the auditor’s office. That’s likely a huge underestimate, given that less than half of districts in the state responded.
Washington school districts say they provide the most basic needs for their homeless students by relying on other funds that are also limited and aren’t specifically geared toward homeless students.
Many school districts use federal Title I, Part A funds for the bulk of their homelessness needs. It’s a program designed to help students from low-income families, and school districts have to decide how much of this funding to spend on homeless students versus low-income students more broadly — a bigger pool.
For example, Bellingham Public Schools allocates $15,000 from its Title I, Part A, funding for homeless students. Evergreen Public Schools has about twice the number of homeless students and sets aside 15 times as much — $225,000.
Evergreen’s graduation rate for homeless students is 79% compared with Bellingham’s 58%.
Bellingham school officials said overloaded staff, a fundamental housing shortage and a lack of mental health resources are the biggest factors in their district’s low homeless student graduation rate.
Duffield, with SchoolHouse Connection, said there should be more oversight and transparency over how school districts decide how much of their Title I, Part A funds to set aside for homeless students. Congress has recently instructed the U.S. Department of Education to take a closer look at this issue.
Bellingham and Evergreen, among other districts, also rely on the state funding for homeless students, but it tops out at $1.7 million distributed to less than 10% of districts per year.
What should happen?
Experts say the McKinney-Vento grant funding formula should change.
A report published in September 2022 by the national nonprofit the Learning Policy Institute suggests that Congress target McKinney-Vento dollars based on student homelessness numbers to promote better identification, rather than disincentivizing it.
While that would benefit Washington, that would punish states that do a relatively worse job of identifying homeless students, and could deprive them of resources to improve, some experts say.
The real problem with funding for homeless students, says Erb-Downward, the University of Michigan researcher, is that “there’s not enough to go around. It needs to be expanded.”
The pandemic provided a historic boost to districts’ homeless student programs in the form of $800 million in American Rescue Plan funds — seven times the usual allotment — that is set to expire in 2024.
Advocates for homeless students had called for the federal government to convert the one-time American Rescue Plan funding into a sustained investment. In the most recent budget passed by Congress, the federal government will instead increase its funding for homeless students by 13% — an additional $15 million nationwide.