Lawmakers look to improve conditions for homeless students

Legislation designed to ensure homeless children have equal access to educational opportunities and to eliminate enrollment or attendance barriers appears poised to move forward, ahead of pending legislative deadlines this month.

AB 1283 by Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, would require a state advisory group to explore the feasibility of establishing a website listing service providers and civil rights for homeless and runaway youth.

Meanwhile, AB 1068 by Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, would simply solidify in state law federal privacy regulations that prohibit school directory information for children identified as homeless from being released unless authorized by a parent or guardian. However, the bill would allow those youths known as unaccompanied' homeless minors to authorize the release of their records - something not currently permitted under the law.

A third piece of legislation, SB 177 by Sen. Carol Liu, D-La Canada Flintridge, would require the state's Interagency Team on Children and Youth to develop a plan to support homeless children to ensure that child abuse and neglect reporting requirements do not create barriers" to their school enrollment and attendance, according to an analysis of the bill.

"Unaccompanied homeless youth need all the help they can get navigating their situation, including support from a variety of providers who can offer them tutoring services, legal advice and other enrichment programs," Bloom wrote in an analysis of his bill. "In order to best help these youth, these support services need access to the youth's educational records."

AB 1068 would facilitate this sharing of information by giving the unaccompanied student - who may not be living with a parent or guardian - the right to access his or her own records, said the author.

According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, of the 2.2 million children living in poverty in California, 13 percent are also homeless - ranking the state 40th in terms of child homelessness and their welfare.

According to Leeanne Wheeler, the state coordinator for homeless education at the Department of Education, there are some 250,000 homeless students enrolled in California schools receiving supplemental funding from the federal government to assist with their needs.

That funding, totaling $7.3 million for California, is authorized through the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, designed to protect the educational rights of children and youths experiencing homelessness. The law requires every school district or LEA to have a liaison to perform outreach and oversight for this at-risk population of students.

There is currently no state funding provided to assist with the educational needs of homeless students, Wheeler said.

Liu's SB 177, inspired in part by the needs of unaccompanied homeless youths, attempts to find a solution to the problem of these older students not wanting to enroll or attend school for fear that, under state mandated reporting requirements, they would be referred to the state's social services or child welfare department, said a legislative aide.

Many times, the aide said, these youths are living with a friend or moving from one house to the next just to have a place to sleep. They want to enroll or attend school but don't want to be placed in the system.'

Under terms of the bill, the State Interagency Team on Children and Youth, in conjunction with CDE, would convene a workgroup to develop policies to overcome this conflict without skirting federal and state reporting requirements.

SB 177 would also extend to homeless children existing requirements specific to foster youth which mandate that they be immediately enrolled at the school of their choosing and "deemed to meet all residency requirements for participation in interscholastic sports or other extracurricular activities," according to bill language.

Bonilla's bill, AB 1283, builds on requirements of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 - reauthorized in 2002 - to:

- Identify existing programs that deal with runaway and homeless youth

- Develop a directory of service providers

- Study the feasibility of the establishment of a statewide referral system - both a hotline' and a website - that would offer a directory of service providers and list the rights of homeless and runaway youth;

- Compile statistics on homeless and runaway youth;

- Identify existing and potential funding sources for services to runaway and homeless youth;

- Coordinate and provide advice to administrators of programs relating to runaway and homeless youth on issues relating to federal funding of those programs.

AB 1283 also requires that the advisory group report on this topic to the governor and the Legislature annually.