By Emma Scher
WNPA Olympia News Bureau
For the past nine years, the population of students in Washington experiencing homelessness has increased.
More than 40,000 elementary, middle and high school students experienced homelessness in the 2016-2017 school year, according to the most-recent report by the state Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction.
Senate Bill 5324, proposed in the legislature this week, aims to increase accessibility of grants and extend support for homeless children served by districts statewide. If passed, the grant application process would be restructured to be more equitable and flexible, and every school would be required to have a point of contact for homeless students.
“If we can bring more stability to this subset of children who are experiencing homelessness or housing instability we can improve overall our graduation rates and the outcomes for them,” said prime sponsor David Frockt, D-Seattle. “We need to continue to support this given… outrageous numbers of kids experiencing homelessness.”
It builds on Washington’s Homeless Student Stability and Opportunity Gap Act, which created a state grant program similar to the federal McKinney-Vento act. McKinney-Vento provides grants to states that address problems associated with the enrollment, attendance and success of homeless children in school.
The bill aligns the definition of homelessness with the McKinney-Vento act, which considers homeless children as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.”
The amendments address inequities in the program among students of color, and greater weight is given to grant applicants that partner with local housing and community-based organizations.
“The more we can provide services and supports in the context of local communities, children stay connected and families feel supported, and we keep whole families together,” said Sen. Claire Wilson, D-Auburn, the Early Learning and K-12 Education committee vice chair.
OSPI also will make available best practices for choosing and training the support in each school.
“Having my school counselor and other school staff know about the protections and services provided to students opened many possibilities,” said Orion Olsen, who testified on behalf of the Mockingbird Society, which is dedicated to improving foster care and ending youth homelessness.
The bill has received bipartisan support and is expected to cost OSPI $90,000 each biennium. Costs to the Department of Commerce and local school districts is indeterminate because the bill gives schools the option to work with a designated vendor or not.
This is designed to encourage collaborative strategies between housing and education partners. It allows students to use grants to support themselves instead of being shuffled from one foster home to another.
“The premise of this bill is sovereignty. It would empower and enfranchise youth experiencing homelessness by providing them the choice of self-sufficiency, and this bill does so in a very accessible way,” said Keya Roy, who testified for the Legislative Youth Advisory Council. “It gives students pathways instead of obstacles towards their sovereignty and freedom.”