Law Lets Schools Help Fight Homelessness

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid

Each year, more than 1.5 million children experience homelessness or near-homelessness. These children are twice as likely to experience hunger and more than twice as likely to experience emotional and behavioral problems. They have a high school graduation rate of less than 25%. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (“the McKinney-Vento Act”) was enacted to combat these issues. The Act also addressed other problems homeless and near-homeless students face to enroll, attend and succeed in school. 

Consider Johnny…

Johnny is a high school student facing some of these problems. His parents recently lost their jobs. The family had to move in with Johnny’s aunt until they get back on their feet. The problem is, the school year already started and Johnny’s aunt lives in another town just over the Iowa border. Johnny does not want to transfer schools. He really likes his teachers and does not want to leave his friends. Still, his old school is almost an hour away and his parents don’t own a car.

Does a student like Johnny have to transfer schools?

 No. Johnny qualifies for services under the McKinney-Vento Act. This means he does not have to transfer schools unless he wants to. Although Johnny is not actually living on the streets, he still falls within the McKinney-Vento Act’s broad definition of “homeless.” The definition includes children who: 

  • Share a friend or family member’s house due to losing their own housing or experiencing some other form of economic hardship;
  • Live in shelters, such as emergency or transitional shelters;
  • Live in unfit or inadequate housing;
  • Live in places not ordinarily used for sleeping, such as parks or abandoned buildings; and
  • Await foster care placement.

In Johnny’s situation, his parents may contact the school district they moved from and speak with a school official or the homeless “liaison.” The McKinney-Vento Act says all school districts must have a homeless “liaison.” Duties of the liaison include:

  • Serving as one of the primary contacts for families like Johnny’s who need assistance, and
  • Coordinating services offered to qualified students under the McKinney-Vento Act.
Changing Schools Can Cause Serious Harm to a Student 

The McKinney-Vento Act also recognizes that a student’s academic and social development can be harmed by changing schools. On average, a child can lose 4-6 months of academic progress with each move to a new school. The McKinney-Vento Act aims to avoid this result by giving homeless students the right to continue to go to their old school whenever possible. 

As long as the distance is reasonable, school districts must arrange free transportation to and from school for students who want to continue attending their old schools, even though their housing situation forced them to move out of the school district. For Johnny, this means officials at his old school district should contact officials in his new school district to coordinate transporting him to his old school. If Johnny had moved farther away from his old school district, like from Iowa to Oklahoma, the distance would no longer be reasonable and the school would probably not be required to provide transportation. Even if he finds permanent housing during the year, Johnny can still go to his old school for the rest of the academic year. 

The McKinney-Vento Act does more than just provide transportation for displaced students. Here is an example of other services it may provide.

Consider Jane...

Jane is a middle school student who moved to Iowa to live with her grandma. Jane’s mom is a single parent living in a homeless shelter a few states away. She can no longer care for Jane. Jane does not have a legal guardian, and the school year is about to begin. 

Can a student like Jane still enroll?

Yes. When someone who is not a parent or legal guardian tries to enroll a child, schools sometimes do ask that a guardian be appointed. However, that should not be necessary. A formal guardianship is not required to enroll at a public school in Iowa. Also, the McKinney-Vento Act requires schools to enroll students like Jane immediately, without paying the usual enrollment fees or showing documents schools normally require, like health records or proof of residency. If Jane does not have these records, her new school must contact her old school right away to get them. 

The homeless liaison is also available to help the school acquire the records or to help Jane obtain any necessary immunizations. Furthermore, when Jane is enrolled at her new school, her attendance there is not limited to only going to classes. The McKinney-Vento Act’s definition of enrollment extends to all aspects of being a student at that school, such as participation in sports or extracurricular activities. 

What other services and benefits are available?

Under the McKinney-Vento Act, eligible students have the right to receive any other specialized services the school provides. Such services may include tutoring, enrollment in public preschool, special education, and school meal programs. A student’s mental health is also provided for. Liaisons can refer students to school counselors, mental health services, or other care providers to receive counseling or medical attention. Another law says all the services the McKinney-Vento Act offers need to be provided in complete confidentiality. Under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, schools are required to protect the privacy of students. So, children eligible for services under the McKinney-Vento Act should not be segregated from other students in any way. Schools are required to take great care to support students discreetly.

A student’s family may also benefit from the services provided under the McKinney-Vento Act. Every school liaison is responsible for coordinating with local human resources to ensure that eligible students have access to support services outside of the school. A liaison can direct a family experiencing economic difficulty to food banks, housing departments, shelters, and other community outreach agencies. If the family is new to the community, a liaison can help them adjust to their new community by providing information on public transportation, grocery stores, or maps of the area.

If you have questions about whether you or someone you know may be eligible for assistance under the McKinney-Vento Act, contact your local school district’s central office. 

Where can I get help or learn more?

Providing legal help to families who face problems including education issues is a priority for Iowa Legal Aid. You can find more on these topics at the website

If a child you are caring for has been denied enrollment, you can contact Iowa Legal Aid. Call 1-800-532-1275. Telephone intake hours are:

Mornings Monday through Friday from 9 to 11 am and Afternoons from 1:30 to 3:30 pm, except Thursday.

Iowa Legal Aid offices are open from 8:30 to 4:30 and emergencies are handled when open.

Last Review and Update: Feb 24, 2012

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