Education of Homeless Students:
Improved Program Oversight Needed
GAO-14-465: Published: Jul 31, 2014. Publicly Released: Aug 22, 2014.
What GAO Found
To identify and serve homeless students under the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program, officials in the 20 school districts where GAO conducted interviews reported conducting a range of activities to support homeless youth, but cited several challenges. With regard to GAO's interviews, 13 of the 20 districts identified homeless students through housing surveys at enrollment, while all 20 relied on referrals from schools or service providers. However, officials in 8 of the 20 districts noted that the under-identification of homeless students was a problem. Districts GAO reviewed provided eligible students with transportation to and from school, educational services, and referrals to other service providers for support such as health care or food assistance. Among the challenges that officials in the 20 districts cited were limited staff and resources to provide services, the cost of transportation, student stigma associated with homelessness, and responding to students made homeless by natural disasters. Nationally, school districts surveyed most recently in school year 2010-11 by the Department of Education (Education) reported providing many services while facing similar challenges.
Education's EHCY program manager and state program coordinators have collaborated with other government agencies and with private organizations by sharing information, participating in interagency councils on homelessness, and providing technical assistance to relevant staff. In addition, state EHCY program coordinators have provided training to school districts and helped connect local programs to ensure homeless students receive various services. However, federal and state officials frequently cited limited resources and differing federal definitions of homelessness as constraints to greater collaboration.
Education has protocols for monitoring state EHCY programs, but no plan to ensure adequate oversight of all states, though monitoring is a key management tool for assessing the quality of performance over time and resolving problems promptly. Prior to fiscal year 2010, it had been Education's policy to monitor 50 states and 3 area programs at least once during a 3-year period, and it did so for fiscal years 2007 to 2009. Subsequently, the department adopted a risk-based approach in fiscal year 2010 and monitored 28 states over the next 3 years. In fiscal year 2013, Education again changed its approach to EHCY program monitoring and has monitored 3 state programs since then. Department officials cited other priorities and a lack of staff capacity as reasons for the decrease in oversight. As a result, Education lacks assurance that states are complying with program requirements. GAO found gaps in state monitoring of districts that could weaken program performance, reinforcing the importance of effective federal monitoring of states.
Declining Frequency of Federal Monitoring for EHCY Compliance since Fiscal Year 2007
Why GAO Did This Study
The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act established a grant program to help the nation's homeless students—more than one million in school year 2011-12—have access to public education. Under the Education for Homeless Children and Youth grant program, states and their school districts are required to identify homeless children and provide them with needed services and support. In fiscal year 2014, Education received about $65 million to administer this program. Education provided formula grants to states, which competitively awarded funds to school districts to help meet program requirements. GAO was asked to review program implementation and oversight.
GAO examined (1) how districts identify and serve homeless students and challenges they face (2) how Education and states collaborate with other service providers to address student needs and any barriers, and (3) the extent to which Education monitors program compliance. GAO reviewed relevant federal laws, guidance, and reports, and analyzed Education's state and school district survey data from school year 2010-11. GAO also interviewed federal officials, and state and local officials in 20 school districts—representing a mix of urban, suburban, and rural districts and grant status—in four states, selected for geographic diversity and other characteristics, such as experience with natural disasters.
What GAO Recommends
GAO recommends that Education develop a plan to ensure adequate oversight of the EHCY program. Education concurred with our recommendation.
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Recommendation for Executive Action
Comments: Education stated that it is developing a plan for monitoring in FY15 and will increase monitoring for the Education for Homeless Children and Youth (EHCY) program, ensuring that all states identified as "higher risk" in its next round of risk assessments are monitored through document reviews, on-site and remote interviews with state and local educational agency personnel. We encourage Education to continue to consider the length of time since a state was last monitored in its determination of risk and to consider developing a monitoring schedule to help ensure that it has the information it needs to determine whether all states are meeting EHCY program requirements. Education also noted that it is changing its monitoring protocol, adding questions related to student academic achievement and potential under-identification of homeless students. According to Education officials, the agency also plans to include the development of a secure website through which states can update their state plans in its next technical assistance contract. Since states may have changed the way they implement the EHCY program since their state plans were originally developed, we encourage Education to take steps to ensure that states that need to update their plans do so.
Recommendation: To help ensure state compliance with the McKinney-Vento Act, Education should develop a monitoring plan to ensure adequate oversight of the EHCY program. This plan could, for example, determine a schedule of states to be monitored and incorporate procedures to assess whether states need to update their state plans.
Agency Affected: Department of Education