In The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies, the Future of Children author Richard J. Murnane explains that the American ideal of equal educational opportunity for all children is not often the reality. According to the America’s Youngest Outcasts 2010 report, one group for whom this may be especially true is the 1.6 million children and youth (1 in 45) who experience homelessness each year.
Homelessness and other forms of housing instability such as doubling up and frequent moving can be traumatic experiences for children. Families are often forced to split up or move into shelters with chaotic and unsafe environments. For the 42% of homeless children who are age six or under, these early experiences may have negative effects on development and school readiness. The barriers young children in disadvantaged circumstances face, as well as policy recommendations for improving school readiness are discussed in the Future of Children volume School Readiness.
For homeless children already enrolled in school, a review of the literature reveals lower levels of school attendance and achievement when compared to other low-income children. They are also more likely to be placed in special education classes, score lower on standardized tests, and be asked to repeat a grade. Moreover, 75% of homeless or runaway youth have dropped out or will drop out of school. The Future of Children volumes America’s High Schools and The Next Generation of Antipoverty Policies discuss ways to prevent dropout and improve the education of children living in poverty.
In 2002, the federal government reauthorized the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in an effort to remediate educational barriers for homeless children. The Act allows children and youth who do not have a fixed, adequate, and regular nighttime residence to immediately enroll in school and to receive services such as free transportation to either their school of origin or local school, immediate special education, and free school meals without an application.
While the McKinney-Vento Act is definitely a huge step toward equal educational opportunity, it is not enough to bring down many of the barriers homeless children face. During the recession years, the number of families at risk of experiencing homelessness increased, putting greater pressure on this issue. At this year’s National Conference for the Institute for Children, Poverty, & Homelessness, researchers and practitioners met to exchange ideas for educating homeless students and improving the circumstances of their families. A common theme at the conference was the importance of collaboration and community partnerships.
For information on homelessness and housing insecurity among Fragile Families see Fragile Families research briefs. Also see the Future of Children volume on Fragile Families and other volumes on the Future of Children website: http://www.princeton.edu/futureofchildren/.