The Road to ESSA: A NAEHCY Perspective
By Barbara Duffield, Director of Policy and Programs
In just four short weeks, on October 1, amendments to the McKinney-Vento Act’s education provisions go into effect in every school district in the country.
The road to this day has been long, and filled with many detours, potholes, and, occasionally, roadblocks. Looking back through my archives, I found an email sent to Patricia Julianelle, NAEHCY’s Director of State Projects and Legal Affairs, on February 17, 2006. The email outlined a list of initial ideas for the reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Act and Title I Part A, and suggested forming a committee to obtain feedback and input from practitioners and stakeholders.
Patricia returned the document a few days later with her thoughts, including this paragraph at the top:
“I was thinking that maybe we should establish subcommittees of the reauthorization committee, to hit solidly some of the big areas. Like maybe subcommittees on preschool, unaccompanied youth, school selection and enrollment, links to housing, links to foster care, litigation, small states, Title I, rural districts, etc. And then one person from each subcommittee could be on the overall committee. I’m not trying to get all structured on us, I’m just thinking about getting the best out of our amazing team.”
Shortly thereafter, we did just that: we began convening “our amazing team” into focus groups of liaisons, state coordinators, and service providers. We worked diligently to craft recommendations that were based on the experiences of those working directly with families, youth, and schools. We worked with haste and urgency, for we expected that reauthorization would be completed the following year, in 2007.
Today, more than a decade later, I re-read the initial list of recommendations with mixed emotions. Without question, ESSA’s McKinney-Vento amendments are historic in incorporating best practices into law to support students experiencing homelessness from preschool through higher education. Expanded professional development, enhanced school stability, increased access to academic and extracurricular activities, and improved policies for credit accrual and college readiness are just a few of ESSA’s changes that will powerfully and directly impact students.
Yet despite our significant victories, some of our best ideas crashed on the rocks of a polarized political landscape and a dismal budget reality. The McKinney-Vento formula remains unchanged, and the increase in the authorized funding level for McKinney-Vento -- while the largest percentage increase of all federal programs in ESSA -- is still modest and woefully inadequate. Other proposals changed dramatically along the way. For example, after listening to continuous, alarming feedback from liaisons and state coordinators across the country, we shifted away from our initial position of advocating for the inclusion of all children in foster care in the McKinney-Vento Act, to advocating for the removal of “awaiting foster care placement” from the McKinney-Vento Act and for separate protections for all foster youth in Title I.
At the same time, some of ESSA’s biggest accomplishments are absent from our initial list of recommendations. Just think about it: in 2006, we did not anticipate or make recommendations about FAFSA provisions for unaccompanied homeless youth, because there were no FAFSA provisions for unaccompanied homeless youth. Our higher education work was still in its infancy, and it wasn’t until 2007 that we succeeded in amending the Higher Education Act to help unaccompanied youth access financial aid. The great work of our Director of Higher Education Initiatives, Cyekeia Lee, paved the way for the strong college readiness provisions in ESSA.
A similar story can be told about young children experiencing homelessness. In 2006, there were virtually no protections for early childhood access. It wasn’t until the following year that our amendments to the Head Start Act passed, and with the passage of ESSA and forthcoming regulations on Head Start and child care, young homeless children have greater access to and stability in critical early childhood education services than ever before. In this regard, too, the final ESSA reauthorization demonstrates the evolution of the work of the entire homeless education community.
A large number of the ESSA amendments are best characterized as refinements: the incorporation of best practices into the law. As a result, the degree to which ESSA presents challenges will be determined by a school district’s current practices. Last week I had breakfast with Denise Ross, the former liaison for Prince George’s County Public Schools, Maryland. (Denise had provided testimony at a 2010 Senate HELP Committee Hearing on reauthorization.) I was describing the new protections for preschool children to stay in their preschool of origin, if it is in their best interest, and the transportation challenges that are likely for many school districts. Denise just shrugged and said, “We were already doing it.” By incorporating the best practices and lessons learned from the most successful school districts, ESSA raises the bar for all school districts, to help all children and youth experiencing homelessness.
Yet when I am asked to name the most important ESSA amendments for homeless children and youth, my response is always the same: the requirements for liaisons to be “able to carry out” their duties, and to take part in professional development provided by the state education agency. In most communities, schools are the only provider of services to children and youth experiencing homelessness. The school district liaison is often the only adult looking out for their well-being. Yet a recent report by Civic Enterprises found that over 90% of liaisons also have other official duties, and 89% say they spend just half of their time or less on their responsibilities as liaisons. One-third of liaisons report they are the only person in their school district who receives training to identify and assist homeless children and youth. Consequently, too many homeless students remain in the shadows, without the support they need to succeed. The ESSA amendments on liaison capacity and training are therefore among the most vital.
Below is a picture that captures a moment from reauthorization history that brings me great joy to this day. At last year’s NAEHCY conference in Phoenix, just as Patricia and I were preparing to start our concurrent session on reauthorization, I received a call on my cell phone from Senator Patty Murray’s office. It was in the final days of the grueling, tense, around-the-clock negotiations. I showed my phone to Patricia, so she could see who was calling, and I dashed out of the room. The call was good news – great news – from the legislative assistant who had been advocating tirelessly for homeless children and youth. Her voice was hoarse, and I could sense her exhaustion. I wasn’t allowed to share the good news with the conference participants at that moment, but I did snap and text her the picture below to show the enthusiasm, the spirit, and the passion that would greet her hard work. It was a moment of triumph for homeless children and youth, and for the educators whose ideas and brilliance are reflected in the final bill. Here are just a few members of “our amazing team” at a moment that felt like nothing less than Olympic gold.
We know that there will be unanticipated challenges and great difficulties ahead. But if we can take a moment to reflect on the road here, and capture our successes, we can gather strength for the hard days to come.
We still want to hear your struggles, so we can shape our technical assistance and advocacy. We work for you and the students you serve. But we also want to hear your bright spots, where ESSA made a difference: youth who are able to receive credit for work done satisfactorily at a previous school; young children who, because they are able to stay at their preschool, don’t lose out on early education; children and youth whose education isn’t upended just as they gain housing, because they were able to receive transportation to stay until the end of the school year.
We’d like to feature these stories in future issues of our newsletter, to inspire each other and keep our eyes on the prize – better futures for homeless children and youth.
Thank you, Team NAEHCY, for your amazing teamwork and partnership - past, present, and future.