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Education Rights of Homeless Children
by Michael A. O'Connor, Esq.

For children who have been traumatized by the loss of home, friends, and perhaps death or injury of family members, returning to school is not only important for educational purposes; attendance at a school becomes an oasis of normalcy for them.

As families leave devastated areas, some will disperse to friends’ and relatives’ homes across the country. Others may become truly homeless, or be placed in temporary housing at hotels, motels or military bases by FEMA.

Although media reports have suggested that schools across the country are welcoming such children, some parents are encountering problems. The lack of identity papers, immunization documents, school records, and lack of proof of prior residency may lead some school districts to resist or refuse admitting children.

The lack of an IEP or 504 Plan for children will also cause some delays in admission or provision of appropriate services. This memo briefly summarizes basic education rights of all “homeless” children, and also reviews rights of children with disabilities. Websites at the bottom of the memo offer more detailed information.

McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act requires that all school districts make special accommodations to ensure access to school for children whose families are “homeless.”

The definition of "homeless" includes not only the classical notions of living in a tent or car, but also families that lack a regular abode (e.g. in a refugee type settlement, or placed in a motel/hotel by FEMA or other agency) or who are temporarily doubled up with another family.

A homeless child must be promptly enrolled, provided full access to classes, be afforded transportation if needed and cannot be discriminated against, or placed in a segregated school, based on their status.

Some displaced families from areas other than New Orleans may end up in locations not far from their original residence, but outside the boundary of their home school. The McKinney Act expressly provides such children the option to attend their home school (if it is still operating).

State education agencies (SEA’s) have responsibility to ensure compliance by local school districts, and each state has designated a coordinator of homeless education of children and youth. The coordinator’s office should be helpful in correcting any barriers or other problems that arise in local school districts.

Problem Solving Strategies for Advocates

Generally, the process of problem solving or advocacy should start with the principal and case manager in a school, then the school district administration, then the SEA coordinator, then U.S. Department of Education (see list of regional offices below).

Advocates should also inquire about state and local policies and procedures, many of which are posted on agency web sites. For example, the Chicago Public Schools website has a 92 page manual setting out procedures for serving homeless children (Chicago Coalition for the Homeless)

Recourse to more formal advocacy may also be necessary. Federal courts have ruled McKinney provisions to be enforceable under 42 U.S.C. §1983, and advocates have successfully enforced McKinney Act provisions in State courts. Also, it may be helpful to monitor the web sites of the Louisiana Department of Education which reports efforts to provide electronic data bases to schools to help with the enrollment of displaced children.

Children with Disabilities Who Are Homeless

Children with disabilities who are homeless were expressly recognized in the reauthorization of IDEA in P.L. 108-446. IDEA now incorporates the McKinney definition of homeless children.

Child Find and Surrogate Parents

Also, the Child Find obligations imposed on school districts to identify, evaluate and provide services to all children with disabilities, no matter how severe, has been expressly extended to homeless children. IDEA 2004 also requires that “unaccompanied youth,” (that is a homeless adolescent not accompanied by a parent or guardian) should have a surrogate parent appointed.

Homeless Children Who Have No IEP

There will most likely be unique challenges arising for children with disabilities who seek to enroll in a school, but lack an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or any documentation of the nature of their disability.

Moreover, many children, including those not previously eligible for special education services, will have such emotional scars from their experience that they will be in need of social work and/or psychological services, which the school should promptly identify and provide as needed.

The burdens and costs of conducting adequate evaluations of children will be a strain for many school districts, and many children will be at risk of not receiving prompt evaluations and specialized services.

School districts and state agencies may propose waivers of various requirements, which may be necessary in the short term. However, because many displaced children will likely remain in that status for an extended period of time, such waivers should not become the status quo and unreasonably deny children educational services in the long term.

Unique Challenges of Displaced Children

Some urban areas, especially those within 400 miles of New Orleans, will experience a large influx of displaced children, and will likely present unique challenges.

If systemic problems are encountered, members of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) should link up with legal aid programs, Protection and Advocacy agencies, and private law firms providing pro bono representation.

COPAA will provide more information about these emerging networks of resources as they become available.

More Information

McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act

The McKinney-Vento Act - Educating Children and Youth in Homeless Situations - information about law, policy and practice.

McKinney-Vento Act from Wrightslaw - Reformatted law so it is easy to read, print, and distribute to schools, social service agencies, shelters, child advocates, and others who are responsible for educating homeless children.

Title VII-B of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act - Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program - as amended by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001

U. S. Department of Education Regional offices

Education of Homeless Children

National Association for Education of Homeless Children & Youth - a national grassroots membership association, serves as the voice and the social conscience for the education of children and youth in homeless situations; connects educators, parents, advocates, researchers and service providers to ensure school enrollment and attendance for children and youth whose lives have been disrupted by the lack of safe, permanent and adequate housing.

National Center for Homeless Education (funded by U.S. Department of Education) - provides research, resources, and information to address the educational needs of children and youth experiencing homelessness.

State Coordinators for Homeless Education - Every state is required by federal law to have a State Coordinator for Homeless Education. This person is responsible for ensuring the understanding of and compliance with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act in public schools throughout the state.

Homelessness and Students with Disabilities: Educational Rights and Challenges published by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (Jan. 2004)

National Coalition for the Homeless - Organization that focuses on four areas: housing justice, economic justice, health care justice, and civil and voting rights by grassroots organizing, public education, policy advocacy, technical assistance, and partnerships.

Louisiana Department of Education - includes links to information for displaced children and teachers on first page of site.

Texas Homeless Education Office - includes information about enrollment and services for services from hurricane disaster areas.

Mississippi Education Hurricane Disaster Information Page - includes frequently asked questions for displaced students, families, school personnel, contact info, phone numbers.

Chicago Coalition for the Homeless

Legal and Advocacy

Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA) - An organization of attorneys, advocates and parents whose primary mission is to secure high quality educational services for children with disabilities.

National Center on Homeless and Poverty – The Law Center monitors and enforces compliance with the McKinney-Vento Act, the federal law that provides a wide array of educational rights to children and youth in homeless situations. We provide technical assistance to attorneys, service providers, parents and educators across the country to ensure that homeless children gain access to public school. We also work to strengthen and enforce national, state and local laws and policies that affect homeless children and youth.

State Protection and Advocacy Agencies for Persons with Developmental Disabilities, Mental Illness and the Client Assistance Program. The Protection and Advocacy (P&A) System and Client Assistance Program (CAP) comprise the nationwide network of congressionally mandated, legally based disability rights agencies.

The Federally Funded Parent Training and Information Centers (PTIs) and Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRCs) are located in each state to provide training and information to parents of infants, toddlers, children, and youth with disabilities and to professionals who work with children.


Educational Rights of Students in Homeless Situations: What Service Providers Need to Know (2 pages, pdf)

Educational Rights of Students in Homeless Situations: What LEA Administrators Must Know (4 pages, pdf)

Michael O'Connor

Mike O'Connor is an attorney who represents children with disabilities and a member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA)

Michael A. O'Connor, Esq.
Mauk & O'Connor, LLP
1427 W. Howard Street
Chicago, IL 60626-1426
Phone: 773 262 2199
Email: mikeoc@earthlink.net

Revised: 08/06/15


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