Our investigation into Pennsylvania schools shows the costs to kids when school officials disagree with parents and other guardians about which homeless education protections, if any, their children are entitled to receive.
Those kinds of disputes are not unique to Pennsylvania.
School system personnel in Maryland also doubted guardians’ claims of homelessness, according to summaries of disputes from the 2022-2023 school year disclosed to the Center for Public Integrity by the state’s education agency.
The disputes arose in a few Maryland school districts where advocates previously argued that the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the federal law that aims to ensure homeless students’ rights to education, was not being followed.
In the 2000s, the Baltimore-based Public Justice Center filed several lawsuits challenging how some of the state’s largest school systems — including Prince George’s County and Baltimore County — implemented the federal law. The cases ended with a series of settlements, the school districts committing to reforms designed to improve services for homeless students.
Debra Gardner, the legal director of the Public Justice Center, said the new Maryland dispute records, though limited, suggest state personnel “appear to be very knowledgeable and very timely in dealing with these issues.” She observed that school district staff respond promptly, too, and that problems seem to arise primarily at the school level.
But she noted that the records fail to capture what homeless children and their parents experience in instances where they do not appeal to state officials for help. The records also don’t show whether schools routinely follow safeguards such as informing families of their rights in writing.
In one case, the family of a child seeking to enroll in a Prince George’s County elementary school said district staff turned them away because they “don’t believe she is homeless based on previous registrations” and “Pre-K is not mandatory anyway.” When reached by a state official, a district case manager said she would seek to enroll the child under McKinney-Vento, according to the summary.
Unhoused and Undercounted
Federal law requires that public schools assist homeless students to help break what could become an inescapable cycle of hardship. But many of the students who need that aid fall through the cracks.
In another Prince George’s County dispute, the state directed the district to “immediately refrain from requiring families in transition to provide an address if they state they do not have one” after a parent said she received a withdrawal packet because she didn’t give an address.
Meghan Gebreselassie, the director of communications at Prince George’s County Public Schools, wrote in an email that the school system enrolled the first student “without delay” after learning about their situation.
“There are occasional situations where schools do not seek guidance from our office and PGCPS intervenes at the system level to ensure compliance with the McKinney-Vento Act,” she wrote.
Regarding the second incident, Gebreselassie said the district sent a memo to relevant staff reiterating that students should be informed of their educational rights and enrolled immediately if they say they do not have an address. The district also conducted training on McKinney-Vento.
At times, Maryland students also experienced some of the same consequences of possible housing instability that Public Integrity observed in Pennsylvania: missed school days and surveillance.
A woman told the state that her grandchild, of whom she recently had received emergency custody, missed at least 150 school days when enrolled in kindergarten in Harford County. Records did not explain how the conflict was resolved. Harford County declined to comment on the homeless enrollment dispute.
And in Baltimore County, a case summary said an investigator working for the district followed a family between two homes where they resided. The summary said the students’ mother had been living with family or in a hotel following a domestic dispute. It was unclear where the children ultimately enrolled in school or how state officials intervened.
Charles Herndon, a spokesperson for the district, said in a statement that the district does not comment on specific cases due to student privacy concerns. He said children remain enrolled while disputes and appeals are pending, and that the district handles homeless disputes in keeping with state and federal law.
Herndon said that residency investigators, who are school system employees, review cases of suspected fraudulent enrollment. Parents, he added, have the opportunity to respond to their findings and “state that the residence was incorrect because of homelessness.”
The Public Justice Center’s Gardner said she found it “distressing” that the district would pay investigators instead of providing services to homeless children.
“School systems often believe that their schools are better than the neighboring county’s or jurisdiction’s schools and that people are trying to scam their way through the McKinney-Vento law into better schools,” she said.
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