In recent years, there's been a big jump in the number of public school students experiencing homelessness in Washington. More than 40,000 students were identified as homeless in the 2016-17 school year, an increase of more than 30 percent from the 2012-13 school year.
A new performance audit from the state auditor's office recommends ways that school districts could do more to help those students, who often suffer significant academic setbacks due to their lack of stable housing.
The federal law known as the McKinney-Vento Act requires that school districts identify students experiencing homelessness, which under the government’s definition includes students living in tents, vehicles, shelters, motels or doubled up with family or friends.
Schools usually send home a questionnaire at the beginning of the school year to find out which students qualify as homeless, but Sohara Monaghan, a senior performance auditor with the state, told a legislative committee that housing situations change during the school year.
“Districts could identify more students if they distributed a housing questionnaire multiple times throughout a school year,” Monaghan said.
The audit report makes a number of other recommendations. For example, districts should make it easier for students to receive partial credit if they have to switch schools in the middle of a semester.
“When a family loses their house and has to move to a different area and live in a shelter or tent city, some families may choose to change their student’s school to a school that is in the local area,” Monaghan said. “But they also have the choice to remain in the school they attended prior to moving to that area.”
School districts are responsible for transporting homeless students to school, even if it's to a different district. The audit report said districts spent more than $15 million last year providing transportation for homeless students, including by taxi.
The state and federal government provided about $2.5 million to school districts for identifying and supporting homeless students in the last school year, but that is nowhere near what districts actually spent. According to the report, districts spent almost $29 million on homeless liaisons, training and student transportation.