The Every Student Succeeds Act, enacted by the federal government in late 2015, recently amended the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act to address the educational effects of homelessness.

The legislation alters the definition of homeless, commissions new methods of identifying homeless students, attempts to keep students in their original school district as long as possible, and creates many additional notice, privacy, and referral obligations for districts.

As before, McKinney-Vento services are provided through the state’s local education agencies (called LEAs in the law, but Texas calls them “districts” or “charters”) and coordinated by a locally appointed liaison.

Defining “Homeless”

The first step in assisting students is identifying those who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence. Homeless residences include “doubled-up” housing (sharing a residence due to economic hardship or changed circumstances), motels, trailer parks, transitional shelters, and substandard housing.

While what constitutes substandard housing can vary based on location throughout the nation and state, LEAs should consider whether the setting “lacks one of the fundamental utilities such as water, electricity, or heat; is infested with vermin or mold; lacks a basic functional part such as a working kitchen or a working toilet; or may present unreasonable dangers to adults, children, or persons with disabilities,” according to guidance from the U.S. Department of Education. Migratory children and unaccompanied youth qualify as homeless under these same standards. Beginning December 10, 2016, children who are awaiting foster care are no longer considered homeless unless they separately qualify as such under the above definition.

Unaccompanied Youths

Unaccompanied homeless youth play the role of both student and parent in the process of managing their education during their time of homelessness. Under the new McKinney-Vento requirements, the services, rights, and preferences granted to parents must also be given to unaccompanied youths.

Identifying Homeless Students

In order to identify homeless children, the local liaison is required to ensure that public notices are posted in locations likely frequented by the parents of homeless youth, including schools, shelters, public libraries, food pantries, and soup kitchens. The notices must inform them of their children’s rights in a manner understandable to the parents.

Local education officials should also seek out homeless children who are preschool-age for enrollment in the school’s Head Start, Early Head Start, and IDEA Part C programs.

The liaison should communicate with area programs—whether public, private, faith-based, secular, full-time, or seasonal—that serve preschool-aged students and also instruct school personnel who enroll homeless children to inquire as to whether the family has preschool aged children who may qualify for services.

School of Origin

One of the major themes of the new guidance is that the school of origin—the last school the child attended when he or she was permanently housed or the school in which he or she was last enrolled—is presumed to be the best school for the student to attend. The only time that school would not be presumed to be in the child’s best interest is when the child’s guardian requests that it not be.

The school of origin includes both the feeder school and the receiving school of the student’s previous enrollment, for example, if Elementary X teaches kindergarten through fifth grade and feeds into Middle School Y, the school of origin of a homeless student who just completed fifth grade would be both Elementary X and Middle School Y. This definition prevents a student from arbitrarily lacking a school of origin because of the vertical division of the district and allows him or her to have such a school whether he or she is retained in fifth grade or promoted to sixth.

Barriers to Enrollment

Schools are expected to remove barriers to the enrollment and retention of homeless children. A lack of past academic records, an inability to pay required fees, or having missed the enrollment deadline are all insufficient reasons to deny enrollment, according to the federal law. If the student does not have a record of immunization, the school must immediately refer the student to the liaison, and the liaison must assist the student in obtaining such records.

Dispute Resolution Process

When there is a dispute about school placement or whether the student meets the eligibility requirements for McKinney-Vento services, the law stipulates that the student should be enrolled in the school preferred by the parents during the dispute resolution process.

Once the decision about eligibility or placement is made, the school should provide written notice to the parents of the reasons for the decision, informing them they have the right to appeal. The local liaison should assist the family during the appeal process, making school resources such as copiers, mailing material, and computers available to the family.

Federal guidance advises schools to create an alternative, less formal dispute resolution process; however, the family should be notified that utilizing the alternative process does not waive their right to a formal appeal.

Barriers to Graduation

The higher mobility rate of homeless students makes them more susceptible to dropping out because they are unable to garner the requisite graduation credits at their most recent school. To counter this, schools are expected to have clear procedures for giving homeless students every chance to count the credits earned at previous institutions toward their graduation.

A school should not deny a transfer of credit without first consulting with the previous district about the exact curriculum of the course and should consider formally or informally evaluating a student’s mastery of a subject and awarding partial credits when possible. They may also offer recovery, online, and accelerated courses. Finally, a school may complement a standard class with additional labs or study programs that would help the student either pass that particular class or assist him or her in fulfilling an additional credit.

Greater Privacy

Records relating to a student’s homelessness fall under the protection of the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA. Normally, a student’s address would be considered directory information. Nevertheless, McKinney-Vento requires that information relating to a homeless student’s living situation (address, previous address, current shelter, etc.) be given the same protections as other non-directory information. If a Public Information Act request is filed that includes student addresses, the school should leave the address portion blank for homeless students. In response to questions as to why the address is not included, the school should not specify that the students are homeless; instead, the school should simply respond that the information is protected by FERPA.


Aside from the liaison’s basic duty of assisting in the enrollment of homeless students, the liaison has several other responsibilities that help extend the efficacy of McKinney-Vento. The liaison must ensure that school staff, teachers, and paraprofessionals are trained on how best to support homeless students in the school. The training must include: (1) how to identify the signs of homelessness, (2) how to minimize the detrimental effects of homelessness on the student’s education, and (3) the procedure for referring a child to the liaison for McKinney-Vento services. The liaison must also attempt to connect a homeless student and his or her family to services such as health, dental, mental, substance abuse, and housing programs.

McKinney-Vento was enacted to minimize the harsh impact of homelessness. The Every Student Succeeds Act amendments seek to better furnish to homeless students a stable learning environment by narrowing the definition of homeless to exclude those in foster care, requiring greater outreach on the part of districts to identify homeless students, and eliminating barriers to enrollment, graduation, and privacy. District efforts to keep homeless students enrolled and on the path to graduation during this tumultuous time are pivotal to these students’ long-term success.

This article has been previously published on and has been edited and reposted with permission from the author.

Marlene Wyatt is an associate attorney in the Austin office of Eichelbaum Wardell, an education law firm serving districts throughout Texas. She taught second grade for two years in Mississippi with Teach For America before attending law school.