A neon yellow 'children crossing road sign' on a street pole in front of a red brick building.
A school crossing sign in Philadelphia. Homeless students are slipping through the cracks in the city's school district, a study says. (Photo by franckreporter/Getty Images)
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School districts nationwide underestimate the number of homeless students they serve, cutting children off from assistance meant to help.

An award-winning Center for Public Integrity investigation revealed the depth of the problem: Hundreds of thousands of students experiencing housing insecurity each year are likely falling through the cracks.

While the issue cuts across geographic and demographic lines, it may be most apparent in one of the nation’s poorest big cities.

A study from Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit, found that the city has the lowest homeless student identification rate of the nation’s 20 largest school districts.

The findings from researchers Anna Shaw-Amoah and David Lapp suggest that, before the pandemic, the School District of Philadelphia identified less than 5% of children living in poverty as homeless before the pandemic. The identification rate hovered around 10% for most of the other districts in the study.

The district did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which protects the educational rights of homeless students, requires schools to identify and provide support to all students experiencing housing insecurity.

In their study, Shaw-Amoah and Lapp also noted that charter schools in the city often refuse to enroll new students mid-year, potentially shutting out children who are relocating to new neighborhoods because of housing instability. The charters that turn away students declare that they’re at capacity and can not accept more students, homeless or not.

“That is a legal gray area,” Lapp said.

Shaw-Amoah and Lapp recommend that the Pennsylvania Department of Education mandate extra training and monitoring for districts that struggle to identify homeless students. They also suggest that charter school authorizers should review how applicants plan to support homeless students before approving new schools or renewing licenses for existing schools. 

While the researchers found that student homelessness is consistently higher in Pennsylvania’s cities, the share of students experiencing housing insecurity is rising faster in the commonwealth’s suburban and rural areas.

Children of families in the suburbs also encounter problems with being identified as homeless.

A recently published Public Integrity investigation revealed the hurdles some housing-insecure families face when trying to enroll their children in Pennsylvania’s suburban school systems — and how districts will go to great lengths to keep them out when officials suspect they’re committing residency fraud.

Public Integrity spoke with Lapp, director of policy research at Research for Action, about the state of student homelessness in Pennsylvania.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Homeless students often struggle in school. Are there even more significant challenges that children in Philadelphia face if they’re experiencing housing insecurity?

Philadelphia struggles from so many challenges as the poorest big city in the country and an incredibly underfunded school system. Again, one of the most underfunded school systems in the state and the nation for a city this big with incredible needs.

We have issues of lead paint and asbestos and crumbling buildings and infrastructure that students are experiencing when they’re in school. There’s research that shows that any difficulties, any struggles that affect all students fall even harder on vulnerable student populations, including students experiencing homelessness.

Q: How can schools address the problem?

This is not just a local issue. This is really a state policy question where a district like Philadelphia needs additional support to provide for its needy students. The state has not been doing that. There’s a lawsuit that was recently won, challenging the constitutionality of school funding in Pennsylvania. 

And again, Philadelphia is one of the most under-resourced districts. And it takes resources to properly serve students experiencing homelessness.

I like to say that inequity is the defining feature of the Pennsylvania school system. Pennsylvania has higher-than-average funding, higher-than-average educational opportunities and higher-than-average outcomes for students. But that masks huge inequities in both resources that are provided, in the educational opportunities that are provided, and in the outcomes we’re seeing. All of them have among the largest disparities in the nation. 

This is a part of that story for Pennsylvania. I think that under-identification and failure to serve students experiencing homelessness is a sign of a lack of resources and inequity in the way we operate our system.

Philadelphia and a lot of other poor communities are shouldering the burden for the whole commonwealth in that regard. If we’re asking that much of them, we should really be providing a lot of resources to those districts too.

That’s the context in which students experiencing homelessness in Pennsylvania are served. They’re disproportionately located in underfunded school districts with high rates of low-income students and high rates of students of color. And those schools are not getting resources. And so that trickles into everything that we see.

Q: What other factors contribute to under-identification of homeless students?

We’ve seen coordinators, even the McKinney-Vento coordinators at the school and district levels, that don’t understand the definition and think, “Oh, that student’s not homeless. They’re living with this other family. They’ve got a place.” And it’s like, well, that actually is included in the definition. That probably leads to a lot of the under-identification, [the lack of] clarity in training and how that’s defined.

Q: About a third of school-age children in Philadelphia attend charter schools. Are those schools doing a better job of identifying and supporting homeless students?

The charter sector isn’t really doing much better in this regard. It’s hard to know if that is also under-identification or if that is a failure to enroll.

Students experiencing homelessness are highly mobile. And so there is a lot of mid-year change in enrollment, and the charter sector is difficult to get into for students in the middle of the year. 

It seems very clear actually that McKinney-Vento requires immediate enrollment of students who are eligible, and there’s nothing in the law that suggests that our school can say, “Well, we’re full,” as a reason to turn them away. But that is clearly what’s happening — not just for students experiencing homelessness, for all students. At least with regard to students experiencing homelessness, that seems to be questionable as to whether that can be a valid excuse.

There are also situations where schools aren’t full, but they’ve just elected to say, “We don’t enroll students midyear.” That is a big barrier.

[At Research for Action], we tried to look at this through midyear enrollment change for students experiencing homelessness. We do see that district schools increase in enrollment throughout the school year, whereas charter schools barely do. Or I should say brick-and-mortar charter schools barely do it.

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Corey Mitchell is a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity. He writes about racial, gender...