CA’s Education System for K–12 Inadequately Identifies and Supports Homeless Youth

Nov. 8, 2019 – In 2018, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) determined that about half a million people in the U.S. experience homelessness on a given night. HUD further reported that more people in California experience homelessness than in any other state in the nation. Among the Californians experiencing homelessness are a significant number of unaccompanied youth and families with children. In the 2017–18 academic year, the latest year for which cumulative data about those experiencing homelessness are available, California’s local educational agencies (LEAs)–school districts, charter schools, and county offices of education—identified more than 269,000 such youth, or about 4 percent of the State’s student population in kindergarten through grade 12 (K–12). However, according to a 2019 report from the American Civil Liberties Union and the California Homeless Youth Project, survey responses that they received from almost 700 California LEAs indicated that LEAs in California are almost certainly not identifying all such youth.

Summary

Our audit of LEAs’ and Education’s efforts to identify and support youth experiencing homelessness revealed the following:

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  • Available data suggest that California LEAs are not doing enough to identify youth experiencing homelessness.
    •    Homeless education experts generally estimate that 5 to 10 percent of economically disadvantaged youth experience homelessness.
    •    Four of the six LEAs we reviewed—five school districts and one charter school—identified 3 percent or fewer of their economically disadvantaged youth as experiencing homelessness.
  • The six LEAs we reviewed could do more to identify and support youth experiencing homelessness.
    •    None of the six LEAs we reviewed sufficiently trained staff to ensure they were aware of information that would help them identify youth needing services.
    •    Only one LEA we reviewed has disseminated information about its homeless education program.
  • Education is federally required to oversee the State’s homeless education program, but it has provided inadequate oversight and leadership.
    •    It monitors this program in less than 1 percent of the nearly 2,300 LEAs in the State each academic year.
    •    It does not effectively use the data it collects to identify and provide guidance to LEAs that may be underreporting the number of youth experiencing homelessness.
    •    It has not conducted a staffing analysis to identify additional resources needed to provide adequate oversight of LEAs’ homeless education programs.

Results in Brief

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, more people in California experience homelessness than in any other state in the nation. The population experiencing homelessness includes a significant number of youth whose performance outcomes often suffer as a result. Federal law defines youth experiencing homelessness as those lacking a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence and it includes those who share housing with other persons because of economic hardship or live in cars, parks, abandoned buildings, or similar settings. To address some of the challenges that these youth may face, federal law requires states to ensure that they have equal access to the same free, appropriate public education available to other youth. The federal McKinney‑Vento Education Assistance Improvement Act (McKinney‑Vento Act) provides federal funds to states to identify these youth and provide services to enable them to enroll in, attend, and succeed in school. The California Department of Education (Education) is responsible for overseeing and administering education, including the education of youth experiencing homelessness in California. Local educational agencies (LEAs)—school districts, county offices of education, and charter schools—designate local liaisons who are responsible for ensuring that school personnel identify youth experiencing homelessness and provide them with educationally related support services.

Education’s data suggest that youth experiencing homelessness are much more likely than their peers to experience poor performance outcomes, such as chronic absenteeism and suspension. They are also less likely to graduate from high school. These performance outcomes suggest that the LEAs are not providing adequate services, including tutoring, transportation, school supplies, food, and counseling, that could better ensure the success of these youth. Although many factors can contribute to a particular student’s performance outcomes, for the six LEAs we visited—Birmingham Community Charter High School (Birmingham Charter), Greenfield Union School District (Greenfield), Gridley Unified School District (Gridley), Norwalk‑La Mirada Unified School District (Norwalk‑La Mirada), San Bernardino City Unified School District (San Bernardino), and Vallejo City Unified School District (Vallejo)—our analysis indicates that when LEAs coordinate with organizations that provide services to youth and their families who are experiencing homelessness, those youth tend to be more successful.

Although Birmingham Charter, Greenfield, and Gridley identified too few youth experiencing homelessness to make a meaningful comparison, the data from the other three LEAs support the reasoning that greater coordination generally yields better results. Specifically, Norwalk‑La Mirada works with other organizations to provide various services to families and youth experiencing homelessness; further, although San Bernardino could not always provide documentation, it claims that it also works with service organizations to provide services to these youth and their families. The data show that at these two LEAs, the youth experiencing homelessness had lower rates of absenteeism, suspension, and dropping out than statewide averages, whereas the youth experiencing homelessness at Vallejo, which told us that it generally does not coordinate with service organizations, consistently had higher rates of absenteeism, suspension, and dropping out compared to statewide averages.

The available data also suggest that California LEAs are not doing enough to identify youth who are experiencing homelessness, even though identification is the critical first step to providing these youth with the necessary services and support. Homeless education experts generally estimate that 5 to 10 percent of economically disadvantaged youth—those eligible for free or reduced‑price meals under the National School Lunch Program—experience homelessness during an academic year. However, despite the high numbers of economically disadvantaged youth enrolled in California schools, Education has not established a benchmark for determining those LEAs that may not be identifying all youth experiencing homelessness. Had Education established such a benchmark, it would have found that the majority of LEAs in the State identified less than 5 percent of their economically disadvantaged youth as experiencing homelessness during academic years 2015–16 through 2017–18. In fact, of the six LEAs we visited, four identified 3 percent or fewer of their economically disadvantaged students as experiencing homelessness. When LEAs fail to identify these youth, they cannot provide them with much‑needed services.

Although all but one of the six LEAs we reviewed acknowledged that they have not identified all youth experiencing homelessness, they have not taken steps to improve their processes. None of the six LEAs have adequately trained school personnel who provide services to these youth, as federal law requires. This training would help to ensure that the staff are aware of important information, such as the definition of a youth experiencing homelessness and the key indicators to look for, that would help them identify the youth needing services. Moreover, several of the six LEAs have ineffective identification methods, and none have sufficiently followed best practices. For example, two of the six do not provide annual housing questionnaires to all enrolled students to identify whether they are experiencing homelessness. By using a housing questionnaire at least annually to determine the housing situation of each enrolled student, LEAs could better identify youth who are currently experiencing homelessness.

Moreover, federal and state laws require that LEAs disseminate certain information related to their homeless education programs in public places, including schools, shelters, public libraries, and food pantries, frequented by families of youth experiencing homelessness to increase awareness regarding the educational rights of youth experiencing homelessness. However, only one of the six LEAs we visited—San Bernardino—has disseminated such information. Local liaisons for four of the remaining LEAs were unaware that the law required them to disseminate such information, and the final LEA—Norwalk‑La Mirada—only disseminated information several years ago at the onset of its homeless education program. When LEAs do not disseminate information to all stakeholders about the rights of these youth, they hinder their own ability to identify all of them.

We believe that many of the problems we noted at the six LEAs are in part a result of Education’s inadequate oversight and leadership of the State’s homeless education program. Federal law requires Education to monitor the activities of LEAs to ensure that they are complying with the requirements of the McKinney‑Vento Act. However, of the nearly 2,300 LEAs in the State, Education monitors only about 20 each academic year, less than 1 percent. Considering the severity of homelessness in California, Education’s review of so few LEAs is concerning. Education’s inadequate monitoring efforts have likely contributed to the issues we identified at the six LEAs. Education also does not fully leverage the data it collects to identify those LEAs that may not be effectively identifying or providing services to youth experiencing homelessness. For example, Education could use the data it collects to pinpoint those LEAs that have identified significantly less than 5 percent of their economically disadvantaged students as experiencing homelessness, and it could provide additional guidance and technical assistance to those LEAs. Identifying those LEAs that require additional guidance is especially important because the guidance Education currently provides is inadequate. Specifically, the sample documents that Education has posted on its website—a sample housing questionnaire and training modules for certain school staff—do not include some key best practices. Further, the sample housing questionnaire contains language that could hinder LEAs in identifying youth entitled to receive services that could help to improve their academic success.

Education has asserted that a lack of resources has prevented it from adequately overseeing the LEAs’ homeless education programs. Although it has engaged in deliberations, some of which are confidential, over whether its staffing is adequate, it has not conducted a staffing analysis to identify the additional resources it needs to adequately oversee LEAs’ programs. Further, it did not redirect resources from within the department to its homeless education program until after our audit began. Unless it provides adequate program monitoring, training, and guidance, Education cannot ensure that LEAs are properly identifying and supporting youth experiencing homelessness. Its leadership is critical to ensuring that these vulnerable youth receive the services that they need and to which they are entitled.

Selected Recommendations

Legislature

To ensure that LEAs effectively identify youth experiencing homelessness, the Legislature should require them to distribute a housing questionnaire to all families and youth, at least annually, and to follow federal laws and best practices when developing the content of the housing questionnaire. The Legislature should also require LEAs to ensure that school personnel who provide services to youth experiencing homelessness receive training on the homeless education program at least annually.

To assure stronger oversight of the State’s homeless education program and effective monitoring of LEAs to help them identify additional youth experiencing homelessness, the Legislature should require Education to develop and implement an LEA monitoring plan that is risk‑based and focuses both onsite and desk reviews, on those LEAs that Education determines are at the greatest risk of underidentifying youth experiencing homelessness and those LEAs whose homeless education program policies may be outdated.

LEAs

To comply with federal laws, Birmingham Charter, Greenfield, Gridley, Norwalk‑La Mirada, San Bernardino, and Vallejo should, before academic year 2020–21, ensure that LEA staff who provide services to youth experiencing homelessness receive training on the McKinney‑Vento Act. Further, to follow best practices, these LEAs should provide this training at least once annually.

To comply with federal laws, before academic year 2020–21, Birmingham Charter, Greenfield, Gridley, Norwalk‑La Mirada, and Vallejo should distribute information about the educational rights of youth experiencing homelessness in public places frequented by families of such youth, including schools, shelters, public libraries, and food pantries.

Education

To ensure that all LEAs receive necessary guidance and training, Education should, beginning with academic year 2020–21, review the guidance documents and templates, including the housing questionnaire, that it makes available on its website for LEAs and ensure that all the documents reflect current best practices. It should then make all LEAs aware of these revised documents.

To ensure that it can effectively meet its responsibilities under federal law for the homeless education program, Education should complete a staffing analysis by May 2020. If Education determines that it needs additional staffing, it should take the necessary steps, including reallocating existing resources within the department, to secure the needed resources.

Agency Comments

Education generally agreed with our recommendations and stated that it will take actions to implement them. However, it disagreed with our recommendation to perform a staffing analysis asserting that it does not anticipate needing additional resources at this time. The six LEAs agreed with all of our recommendations and stated that they will take actions to implement them.

Full Report: https://www.auditor.ca.gov/pdfs/reports/2019-104.pdf
Fact Sheet: https://www.auditor.ca.gov/pdfs/factsheets/2019-104.pdf
Interactive Graphics: https://www.auditor.ca.gov/reports/2019-104/supplemental.html