San Diego schools reported more than 22,000 homeless students enrolled in public and charter schools last year. April 14, 2016. Megan Wood, inewsource.
San Diego schools reported more than 22,000 homeless students enrolled in public and charter schools last year. April 14, 2016. Megan Wood, inewsource.

With limited details available in the Trump administration’s “skinny budget,” education officials are worried that an already small source of federal funding to help homeless students succeed could be at risk.

The budget blueprint released last month asks Congress to cut $9.2 billion in federal education spending, including funding for after-school programs, teacher development and other need-based grants.

In 2016, $70 million was provided to districts, charter schools and county offices of education across the nation through the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youth program. That included a total of $720,000 to applicants in San Diego County. Congress has until April 28 to agree on a funding amount for 2017, up to a maximum of $85 million.

But even if the full amount were authorized, what districts currently receive to help homeless students is “a drop in the bucket,” said Barbara Duffield of SchoolHouse Connection, a national organization that promotes success for homeless youth.

Duffield doubts the McKinney-Vento program will be eliminated under the new administration, but said the amount decided on for this year will “set the tone” for its future.

“I would obviously be very concerned if the program was targeted,” she said.

Recently, three congressmen began circulating a letter urging their colleagues to sign on in support of “robust funding” for the program. They argue that the current authorization of $70 million funds only 24 percent of districts and county offices nationwide.

The McKinney-Vento Act is designed to help districts and county offices identify and remove barriers to education for homeless students. Children living unsheltered, in cars, trailers, motels or hotels and doubled up with other families may need help cutting through enrollment red tape, transportation costs and other needs.

But districts must provide these services regardless of whether they receive the grant.

In 2014-15, the most recent data available from the U.S. Department of Education, schools across the nation enrolled more than 1.3 million homeless students.

California is home to 20 percent of those students and subsequently received the most McKinney-Vento funding last year — $7.5 million.

Nearly a third of the local education agencies in California reported 50 homeless students or more, which made them eligible to apply for McKinney-Vento funding. Of the 130 that applied, 61 were funded in amounts ranging from $15,000 to $250,000 based on need.

What San Diego districts receive

More than 22,000 homeless students were enrolled in 53 San Diego County districts and charter schools in 2013-2014, based on data applicants used to write their most recent grant proposals.

More than half were eligible to receive the funding, but only eight applied. Four were granted a total of $720,000 — Vista Unified, Santee, San Diego Unified and the San Diego County Office of Education.

“Some districts just don’t feel it’s worth the time and the effort,” said Susie Terry, a project specialist for foster youth at the San Diego County Office of Education.

Funds can pay for faculty positions to help enroll homeless students, before- and after-school programs, transportation, professional development and other needs.

Terry said larger school districts may have an easier time applying because many have a designated grant writer. But even then, the time it takes to complete a grant may not be worth the reward.

“San Diego Unified, for example, got the highest award,” Terry said. “But that’s $242,000 to serve over 7,000 homeless students. So from a district perspective, I think it seems like a small amount of money.”

Smaller districts, like Santee and neighboring La Mesa-Spring Valley, are encouraged to apply as consortiums to better their chances of receiving money. The two applied together in 2015 and received a $76,000 grant. Seven applications were submitted as consortiums in California and each was funded.

If funding falls through

“McKinney-Vento can’t be seen as the be-all-end-all for school districts efforts to end homelessness,” said Duffield, pointing out there are other sources of funding.

School districts are required to set aside Title I funds each year to supplement expenses for low-achieving students throughout the year. The policy states districts can use these funds to provide clothing, school supplies, immunizations and other necessities to students experiencing homelessness, but only after other school and community resources have been exhausted.

Megan Wood was a multimedia journalist for inewsource. To contact inewsource with questions, tips or corrections, email