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Better Oversight Needed of Federal Program for Homeless Students, GAO Says

The U.S. Department of Education needs to provide better oversight of a federal program aimed at ensuring that homeless students have access to the public education system, a new Government Accountability Office report found.

The authors of the report, obtained by Education Week, listed several challenges to the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program, which provides students with transportation to and from school as well as wraparound services such as health care, counseling, and food assistance. The biggest of those include limited staff and resources, the high cost of transportation, student stigma associated with homelessness, and responding to students made homeless by natural disasters.

GAO2.PNGAnd while the department has protocols for monitoring the program, the report notes, it doesn't have a plan to ensure adequate oversight  in every state. In fact, it the department assessed the program in just 28 states from fiscal year 2010 to 2013, and in only three states since then.

"The idea that any child or young person would fall behind in school, or simply not attend, because they don't have stable, safe housing is a tragedy—and it's unacceptable," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who requested the report along with Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. "This report shows that while existing programs are successfully connecting many homeless children and youth to school and all the resources that come with it, there is much more we need to do to ensure every child has that same support."

The GAO report specifically examined how districts identify and serve homeless students, the challenges they face in doing so, how the department and states collaborate with other service providers, and the extent to which the department monitors program compliance. The report's authors interviewed state and local officials in 20 school districts representing a mix of urban, suburban, and rural districts.

In addition to oversight challenges, one of the biggest problems the reports' authors found is the under-reporting of homeless students, due to both their mobility and the financial disincentives school districts face in identifying them due to the cost of services districts must provide.

Federal and state officGAO.PNGials also told the report's authors that their inability to coordinate services at the federal, state, and local levels due to limited staff and resources has been a significant barrier to the program's effectiveness. Indeed, a survey of the 2010-11 school year by the Education Department found that more than half of the states, 27 total, had one or no full-time employees working in the state program office.

The program is operating with $65 million for fiscal year 2014.

"This GAO report shows that while the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program is helping to provide access to essential services like transportation to school as well as health care and food assistance, additional coordination of state, federal, and private organizations is critical," said Harkin. "To ensure that every child has the opportunity to succeed, we must do more to help this program fulfill its mission and give every homeless child a path to a bright future."

This isn't the first time Murray and Harkin have partnered on the subject of homeless students.

The duo cosponsored the Strong Start for America's Children Act (S. 1697) this Congress, which would distribute federal dollars in formula grants to states, with a state match, based on the state population of 4-year-olds under 200 percent of the federal poverty level. To be eligible, states would be required to offer state-funded kindergarten, establish early-learning standards, and be able to link prekindergarten data to K-12 data.

Murray, in particular has been a longtime champion of ensuring homeless students have access the public school system.

Other measures (S. 833, S. 834) she's proposed would prioritize homeless children for access to child care, allow homeless students to remain in their original school, and increase funding to assist with the cost of transportation, among many other things. Murray also introduced a bill (S. 1754) that would increase access to college for homeless students and children in the foster care system.

"I'll continue to be focused on this challenge going forward," said Murray, who could be the next chairwoman of the HELP Committee when Harkin retires at the end of this year, should Democrats maintain control of the Senate.

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