Policy and Programmatic Responses
The workshop discussions converged on the idea that children who are affected by instability in their housing, their schooling, their families, and their families’ livelihoods are at risk for academic difficulty and other problems, and that when those children move frequently the problems are exacerbated. We saw in Chapter 2, for example, that mobility patterns are different for homeless children, minority children, and children from low-income families than for many others, most likely because mobility can exacerbate already precarious family situations. While it is difficult to disentangle the unique effect of mobility from the effects of other cascading, associated risks, Stephen Raudenbush observed, there is ample theoretical reason and some empirical evidence for viewing the problem of frequent mobility among the most disadvantaged families as a significant concern for public policy. The workshop turned next to the question of what policy makers and others can do about this problem. Presenters discussed policies and programs designed either to reduce mobility for this vulnerable population or to buffer children against its impact, including both ideas that have been implemented and ideas still in the potential stage.
Two primary avenues for policy interventions that could help highly mobile children are housing and education. Sandra Newman provided a primer on housing policies and the possibilities they offer in cases in
which housing problems (as opposed to other family disruptions) are the direct cause of the mobility. She described some research on the outcomes for children whose families received housing vouchers. David Johns provided a national perspective on education policy, with a focus on policies related to homeless children.
Three kinds of housing assistance are available for low-income families, Newman explained. Public housing—there are approximately 1.2 million units nationwide—is perhaps the best known. Another is private assisted housing, an arrangement through which a private-sector developer receives advantageous financing from the government in return for a time-limited commitment to keep rents affordable. There are about 1.5 million units of this type of housing nationwide. The largest category is housing vouchers, which are currently assisting about 2 million households. She stressed that, unlike the food stamp or Medicaid programs, housing assistance is not an entitlement—only about one-third of families whose income makes them eligible receive any housing support. She also noted that the United States spends three times more money on tax benefits to homeowners as it does on assistance to low-income households, primarily in the form of mortgage deductions.
Several requirements govern housing assistance. Housing units must meet physical quality standards. Both public housing and private assisted housing must meet site and neighborhood standards, although these requirements do not apply to housing units offered to voucher holders. Families generally pay approximately 30 percent of their income for these units, although voucher recipients may choose to pay a higher percentage.
Newman suggested that the voucher program is often viewed as the centerpiece of housing policy. It is the least expensive approach, and some analyses show that families have greater choice as to where they will live when they use vouchers. On average, there is less neighborhood distress where voucher units are located, compared with neighborhoods where public housing is located. She focused on vouchers as perhaps the most useful window into housing policy and residential mobility.
Vouchers are interesting in this context in part because they are designed to foster mobility by helping families move to higher quality neighborhoods. Indeed, one criterion used to evaluate voucher programs is whether they have successfully helped families move to better neighborhoods or whether they are insufficient to overcome obstacles to that sort of move. This focus for voucher programs was in part a response to research on the effects of neighborhoods on families and children,
although Newman said that the results of this research are somewhat mixed. The median length of time that families remain in their voucher residence is about two years, but the impact of the change on families and children is not straightforward.
She described a study of the effects of housing vouchers on children’s moves conducted from 2000 to 2004 in six cities (Atlanta, Augusta, Fresno, Houston, Los Angeles, and Spokane) (Gubits, Khadduri, and Turnham, 2009). The researchers found a dramatic decline in homelessness (36 percent) among those who used the vouchers. In terms of reducing mobility, the study found significant results only for families who started out in their own residences (in contrast to those who had been living in public housing or had been sharing space in someone else’s home). Those who started out in their own residence had 1.3 fewer moves during the study period if they received vouchers. The voucher recipients experienced only a slight overall increase in neighborhood quality, and most of this improvement was for families who had begun in public housing, which is typically located in high-poverty neighborhoods.
Mysteriously, Newman noted, a substantial share of those of those who received vouchers relinquished them, even though they continued to qualify for this assistance. The study results indicate that a variety of family experiences may account for this phenomenon. Many families reported being overwhelmed by the rules and paperwork, having difficult interactions with landlords related to the voucher, and having trouble finding housing that would qualify. There are no baseline differences between those who did and did not relinquish their vouchers, Newman explained, so this finding is probably not a selection issue. However, the voucher is a very large subsidy, and those who held on to their vouchers were in more favorable economic circumstances by the end of the study than those who relinquished them.
Newman drew a few conclusions from these data.1 First, she said that performance incentives for the program’s administrators would encourage them to do a better job helping families. In particular, they could provide more detailed and useful assistance in searching for housing that will qualify for the program. At the same time, as a participant pointed out, the waiting lists for this program can be years, and in many cities they are actually closed because the demand is so high. Baltimore, Newman noted, closed its list at 18,000 names several years ago.
David Johns provided an insider’s view of ways that Congress has addressed the issue of school mobility through education policy. He reviewed legislation and funding priorities that affect children, families, and education, such as the Kennedy Serve America Act, the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, the Family Violence Prevention Act, and others. At the time of the workshop, legislative efforts in development included programs related to early learning, workforce investment, and universal literacy. More directly related to mobility, however, is the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which addressees the education of homeless children and youth in U.S. public schools. This act was adopted in 1987 in response to data showing that up to 50 percent of homeless children were not enrolled in school. It was subsequently reauthorized as part of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.
The law provides funds to support staff liaisons to homeless families who are responsible for ensuring that homeless children are enrolled in school and for addressing problems that arise in relation to their education. For example, the liaison may help to resolve a dispute or ensure that a student remains enrolled through periods of homelessness. Liaisons may also address problems with transportation or other obstacles to regular attendance. It also establishes the right for homeless children to remain in the school they attended prior to becoming homeless and requires the school district to provide transportation.
The federal government recently invested $70 million in McKinney-Vento services, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, which, Johns explained, doubled the size of the program. Nevertheless, fewer than 10 percent of school districts that receive Title I funds2 currently receive McKinney-Vento funds as well. Perhaps more important, Johns indicated, are ongoing efforts in the House and Senate to educate senators and representatives about the needs of homeless students and others highly mobile students, which has become a particular focus since the 2008-2009 recession began.
Many of the needs he highlighted relate to imperfect understanding of the needs of different groups and their interactions with other groups and schools. Sometimes issues related to the jurisdiction of different committees impede comprehensive support for all who need it. As one presenter suggested, the data indicate that large numbers of children and youth fall outside the most vulnerable groups, but they still need support
that can help prevent them from falling into those acute-risk groups, such as the homeless.
It is therefore important to make sure that regulations and programs addressing the needs of particular children are not working at cross-purposes, so that eligibility for one type of support or program will not make children ineligible for another. Formal definitions of categories, such as homeless youth, are also important in this context, as they may exclude segments of the population that also need support. The definition of homeless youth in the context of education (“lacking a fixed, regular, adequate night time residence”) was designed to include children who are staying temporarily with relatives, living in motels or shelters, and so forth. Yet many children still fall through the cracks, and the definition used by federal housing programs, he said, is less inclusive. Johns suggested that other programs, such as those related to workforce development, could help link job training and placement opportunities to housing assistance opportunities and related support services.
At the same time, there are many opportunities for the federal government to offer practical assistance. For example, many districts have struggled to provide the transportation that can make it possible for homeless and transient young people to stay enrolled in their original school. Lack of adequate funding for this frequently large expense, as well administrative and other obstacles to transporting children within or across districts, can be a daunting problem. Some districts are spending all of their McKinney-Vento funding on transportation because they have no other way to cover this necessity. This problem is not just an administrative one, but also relates to the issue of schools with high mobility raised earlier. For example, if homeless children in a district tend to be housed in a particular shelter and enrolled in the nearest school, their mobility is likely to affect the quality of that school. Johns observed that flexibility in Title I regulations, as well as other programs related to infrastructure and transportation, may provide means of supporting districts facing this problem.
Perhaps more important are recent initiatives, he suggested in response to another participant, such as the 2009 Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Rehousing Program, that are designed to reduce homelessness, rather than simply to ameliorate its discomforts. He noted that 20 or 30 years ago it was rare for a homeless person to report having grown up homeless, but today it is more common. Homelessness has become an intergenerational problem; when part of an 18-year-old’s exit interview from foster care includes instructions on how to locate emergency shelter, he said, it is clear that policy is not adequately addressing the problem.
Finally, he noted that the Senate, seeking better data about the problems associated with homelessness and mobility, has recently requested a
new study from the U.S. Government Accountability Office. The request covers connections among homelessness, mobility, achievement, and development, as well as better measures of the children affected and the impact. Johns closed with a request that the research community help policy makers by “speaking in very clear understandable ways about the issues facing this population.”
Presentations on individual programs and policies based in schools, communities, and the U.S. Department of Defense provided a close look at how some of these issues are addressed.
Advocacy and Community Action
If a school has a high classroom turnover rate, Chester Hartman commented, “It’s chaos. It makes all the reforms—smaller classes, better trained teachers, better facilities—irrelevant.” He noted that in some classrooms in low-income and minority neighborhoods turnover rates as high as 50 to 75 percent are not uncommon, and that this situation affects not only those mobile students, but the others—and their teachers—as well. He highlighted the reasons why the problem is so complex, alluding to the many subgroups already discussed and also noting some that had not been mentioned, such as children whose families are fleeing international upheaval and survivors of natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina.
Hartman also described some of the lessons that can be drawn from work published in a focused issue of The Journal of Negro Education (Hartman and Franke, 2003), which examined community-based efforts to support various groups of children in need. For example, the children of migrant workers, who may work on farms, in dairy or meat production, or similar fields, have problems that include cultural isolation and often linguistic isolation in addition to many of the problems that affect other transient children. Many education programs for migrants have used technology effectively to provide distance learning to these children, as well as to make their academic and health records more accessible to the adults who work with them.
Other approaches that have been successful include an intense focus on intake procedures when new families enter a school. This may include taking a family history, conducting academic testing, offering a classroom buddy system, providing health services and family counseling, and follow-up to monitor new students’ progress. Other districts have had success with developing community schools, in which the facility is available in the afternoons, evenings, and weekends so it can house health
services, English classes, job counseling services, and so on. Coordination between housing officials and educators is also useful because the primary trigger of classroom instability is housing instability. For example, families can be encouraged to time moves to fit children’s schedules, whenever possible. Hartman highlighted the need for laws and programs that support residential stability, and suggested that an adequate supply of decent, affordable housing should be treated as a right. If that were a policy priority, in his view, it would go a long way toward reducing school mobility.
A School District Addresses Student Mobility
The Arlington, Virginia, public school system has made reducing school mobility and supporting mobile students a priority, Judy Apostolico-Buck explained. The 20,000-student district has high percentages of minority and low-income students but a generous budget, so they have been able to make a significant investment in a preschool program. It conducted an evaluation of its 37-year-old Montessori preschool program during the 2001-2002 school year.
Using the Phonological Awareness Literacy Screening (PALS) assessment to collect data on students’ readiness for kindergarten in the fall, the evaluation team found that children who had attended preschool had a significantly higher pass rate than those who had not (see Figure 4-1). Apostolico-Buck noted the particularly sharp differences among the children who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.
These results showed the district the value and importance of pre-school experience for all students, so they conducted focus groups with parents in the groups most in need, primarily African American and Hispanic families. These parents cited a variety of concerns related to cost, location and convenience, extended hours, and so forth. Although the district had already tried to address many of these issues, it adopted a plan to guide the work of the school board and the early childhood office. The recommendations included providing access to a pre-K program for all 4-year-olds who qualify for lunch subsidies located in the public schools and to provide pre-K options in every Arlington elementary school, which allowed parents to choose an option close to their workplace or a relative’s home. The district also provided transportation and extended hours and allowed children to remain in the same program even if they moved within the county. The district made sure that the curriculum was consistent across the preschool programs and was designed to address the full range of children’s needs. Children were also provided with access to health and dental care and other family resources. Home
visits, multiple parent-teacher conferences, and parent education are also prominent aspects of the program.
In 2007 and 2008 the county again collected data on the effectiveness of the preschool program, using the PALS assessment, work samples, teacher observations, and other summative instruments. Table 4-1 shows the more recent PALS results.
In general, Apostolico-Buck reported, economically disadvantaged children who attended Arlington’s preschool program had sustained gains that have lasted at least through fifth grade (the district will continue to follow their progress). She suggested that the experience of success in kindergarten is extremely important because it shapes both children’s and parents’ expectations about school, and they take the expectation of success with them as they progress.
State Support for Highly Mobile Families
Linda Schmidt highlighted the importance of bridging the gap between research and practice in describing the work of the Family Resource Centers operated by the Michigan Department of Human Services. These centers were developed to provide supplementary services to schools that
TABLE 4-1 APS Kindergartners Meeting or Exceeding the PALS-K Benchmark (percentage)
were failing to meet adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets under the No Child Left Behind Act. The state hoped to focus on the needs of families that are affected by multiple kinds of risks and negative circumstances and are not as well served as they could be by an array of programs that are underfunded and can be difficult to navigate. Michigan policy makers had conducted a survey to ascertain its citizens’ highest policy priorities and were surprised by some of the results. For example, a surprising number of survey respondents asked for more security in terms of basic needs, such as running water and indoor plumbing. Approximately half of the people in Michigan who were eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families were not receiving it.
The Family Resource Centers are located in schools and offer support to eligible persons in gaining access to services offered by the Department of Human Services, such as cash assistance, food assistance, emergency relief, and access to Medicaid. The theory behind these centers is that family functioning is a key predictor of academic success, that security in meeting basic needs is absolutely essential for school attendance and academic achievement, and that the Department of Human Services is the main provider of family supports. Schools are also logical places for the centers because parents are already required to ensure that their children are attending school in order to receive public assistance. Moreover, although schools and service agencies were often serving the same families, they did not always have the same information about the families, or perhaps even the same goals.
Eliminating homelessness and poverty has been a state policy goal, and housing has been an important element of the program. Among the specific supports offered through the Family Resource Centers was collaboration among the Michigan State Housing Development Authority and other partners to address families’ housing needs (the Genesee Scholars Program, located in the city of Flint). Landlords were offered economic
inducements to work with families to avoid eviction and to make needed improvements to rental units, for example.
The state has not been able to secure funding for a comprehensive evaluation of the program, but it has analyzed its administrative data and compared schools that were and were not selected to house family resource centers. Although the schools selected are very high-poverty schools (in many, 98 to 100 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch), all the schools in the comparison group were high-poverty and had difficulty meeting AYP requirements. They found that the schools with centers were four times more likely to meet AYP targets in subsequent years. This is important, Schmidt stressed, because the schools were not necessarily offering new programs that were previously unavailable—they were simply colocating and coordinating services in order to make them more accessible and to reach the neediest families. Attendance also improved in the schools with centers, and pass rates on state tests for children in host schools more than doubled.
Schmidt acknowledged that it would be difficult for a researcher to parse out the impacts of the program on particular outcomes because, he said, “as policy makers we tend to go for the most bang for the buck and are not thinking about the best way to eventually research the results.” Moreover, the groups reached by the program tend to be “cycling into worse and worse situations so that any intervention would be likely to have a big return.” She closed with an echo of Hartman’s comments, “there is a reason why poverty is so connected to [each of these problems]. It would make sense to target poverty instead of skirting the issue.”
Supporting Mobile Children in Military Families
One group of highly mobile children—hardly mentioned at the workshop—has been the focus of special attention designed to mitigate the risks of frequent school changes. The U.S. Department of Defense, Kathleen Facon explained, has made a concerted effort to provide supports and safety nets for service members and their families. Nevertheless, these families still need support from state and local governments as well. A total of 92 percent of military children attend schools outside military installations (the remaining 8 percent are educated at Department of Defense schools). The average military child will encounter six to nine different school systems between kindergarten and twelfth grade.
The Department of Defense has taken a number of steps to help military families provide an excellent education for their children. One important step was the development, with the Council of State Governments and the National Governors Association, of an interstate compact to address the educational transition of military children, which has been
adopted in 23 states. The compact addresses such issues as class placement, records transfer, immunizations, graduation requirements, exit testing, and extracurricular opportunities, with the goal of achieving uniform treatment of mobile military children at the state and local levels.
Another step was 2007 legislation that set up the Defense Education Activity (DEA), a body that works with school systems in which military children are enrolled. The DEA is particularly interested in working with districts and schools that are not performing well; it provides supports such as curriculum development, professional development for teachers, and distance learning courses. It also awards grants to needy districts.
Several studies have expanded understanding of the needs of military children (U.S. Department of Defense Education Activity, 2009; Military Child Education Coalition, 2010), and Facon highlighted several key points. A focus on the transition to postsecondary education, for example, called attention to the importance of the last year of high school; the Department of Defense implemented a policy of allowing service members with children at that stage flexibility in responding to transfer orders so they can avoid moving children during that year. Distance learning programs and a Department of Defense Virtual School have been helpful with credit recovery and other transition-related problems. Programs targeting the needs of mobile students with special needs, programs designed to build connections among families and between families and schools, and mental health programs have also been important supplements to the academic supports.