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McKinney-Vento Amidst a Housing Crisis

By Jerome A. Steele, Assistant Director of Research and Professional Development

Educators, when overwhelmed by frustration at a student’s non-compliance or lack of progress, often turn to the well-worn truism “it starts at home.” Home, however, is becoming increasingly precarious and insecure for many students and families. Rising rents, particularly during a period of prolonged inflation, (or price gouging - as Target admits it can reduce prices on 5,000 basic goods), has created an economic squeeze for working families. The impact of rising rent on people’s living conditions was highlighted in a 2020 study by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office that found that a median rent increase of $100 corresponds to a 9% increase in the unhoused population. Given current trends, this should sound alarm bells for New York State schools as they work to meet student needs in uncertain budget environments. 

What Does the Rental Data Say? 

Rental price data comes in two forms - historical data from sources like American Community Survey (ACS), that is more robust and accurate, and price data from real-estate websites like Zillow, Zumper, and Point2Homes. The most recent data set from the ACS (2022), shows that 49.99% of renters in Albany County paid more than 30% of their income for rent (excluding utilities); this was true of 55.55% of renters in Schenectady County, 45.68% in Rensselaer County, 44.32% in Saratoga County, and 44.86% in Warren County. This data shows that a strong plurality of renters are often using a majority, or near-majority of their income to cover their basic rent. 

Price data from real estate-facing websites indicates a substantial median rent increase throughout the Capital Region. Point2Homes, using data from YardiMatrix (a demographic and economic database for real estate investors), indicated that median rents in the City of Albany rose from $1331 to $1617 between April, 2021 and March, 2024. Zumper, another real estate platform, found a median rent increase of 14% in their rental inventory from $1278 to $1487 between May, 2023 and May, 2024. 

What does this mean for schools? 

An examination of NYSED testing data reveals a stark, relentlessly persistent disproportionality between housed and unhoused students. For example, the 2021-22 assessment cycle showed a 21% proficiency gap (28% vs. 49%) between housed and unhoused students on the Grade 3 NYS Math Assessments and an 18% gap (29% v 47%) on the Grade 3 NYS ELA Assessments. This is a stark inequity that is consistently exceeded only by the disproportionality between students with disabilities and students in general education and students who are economically disadvantaged and those who are not. This raises a few interesting questions. 

McKinney-Vento was initially enacted in 1987 to allocate Federal funds to provide assistance to unhoused individuals and families. It has evolved to create mandates for schools. According to the NYS Department of Education, McKinney-Vento guarantees that unhoused students “shall receive a free and appropriate public education,” in addition to access to transportation between districts if necessary, and “educational services comparable to those provided to other students, according to each student’s need.” In light of the stark disproportionality in outcomes between housed and unhoused students, are schools currently equipped to offer a “free and appropriate education”? 

NYSED lays out a McKinney-Vento compliance process for identifying unhoused students that is not dissimilar to the Child Find process for students with disabilities. Schools are tasked with affirmatively identifying students’ housing status and then determining an appropriate course of action to meet their needs. This process, however, can be difficult for students and families as discussing housing insecurity and financial difficulties is often embarrassing and stigmatizing. The fact that disproportionality between economically disadvantaged students and their non-disadvantaged peers is consistently higher than the disproportionality between housed and unhoused students suggests that perhaps schools lack the resources and procedures to “affirmatively identify” and support unhoused students. 

What Is To Be Done? 

Evaluate Current Practices in McKinney-Vento Compliance

The first step in improving the support we offer students facing housing insecurity is a thorough review and evaluation of district and school McKinney-Vento policies and practices. Essential questions include: 

  • Who is responsible for overseeing the McKinney-Vento process? 

  • Is this a full time position/s? 

  • If it is not full time, what other roles and responsibilities does this person or people perform? 

  • Do the district staff members involved in McKinney-Vento compliance have the time and resources to engage in meaningful dialog with students and families, or is the process closer to an exercise in bureaucratic box-checking? 

This process should also include interviews and/or focus groups with families who have participated in the process to understand their experience of district efforts: 

  • Do they feel supported and affirmed? 

  • Was the process dehumanizing or stigmatizing in any way? 

  • Did district support have a meaningfully positive impact on the student’s educational experience?

  • Was communication clear and consistent? 

  • How did the district follow-up once the paperwork was concluded?

Identify and Empower Connection Builders

Extensive research demonstrates that school-centric, unilateral parent and family engagement leads to feelings of disconnection and alienation for students and families (see Ishimaru and Alameda-Lawson especially). The messenger matters. An honest conversation about family and student needs in the context of housing insecurity and economic precarity cannot happen without clear trust between parties. 

The fact that data suggests we are undercounting unhoused students shows that traditional approaches to McKinney-Vento compliance have not built the necessary trust for families to engage in exchanges with the school district that can be embarrassing and dehumanizing. Identifying people in your district and broader community who could serve as connection builders or cultural brokers to lead outreach work around economic insecurity are far more likely to produce substantive conversations that address not only housing needs, but also the needs of students and families regarding education more broadly (Green, 2017 and Ishimaru, 2020). If McKinney-Vento demands that districts offer a “free and appropriate public education” to unhoused students, who decides what is appropriate? Working directly with community leaders, cultural brokers, and impacted families is the only way to answer that question meaningfully. 

Influence the Socio-Political Context

School superintendents and board members carry significant power and influence in their local communities. Very often, however, they restrict their advocacy to a narrowly circumscribed vision of “educational issues.” These topics, such as foundation aid and school funding more broadly, are extremely significant. But these issues are not the only ones that impact the students and families they serve. Given the fact that schools are funded largely by property taxes, one could argue that housing is an issue of paramount importance for the living conditions of students and families and school budget bottom lines. As rents increase and the value of rental properties skyrocket,  landlords are predictably resistant to reassessments of the tax rolls that would boost school funding and provide greater resources to students and families. 

Education Northwest’s LEAD Tool rubric (Larson, Galloway, Ishimaru, Lenssen, and Carr, 2019) offers a specific domain that offers examples of exemplary educational leadership in influencing the socio-political context. The document states that exceptional leadership strategically uses its formal power and authority and acts as an ally to educators, students, and parent/community leaders in prioritizing policies and systems to ensure a high-quality education for every student (p. 8). Realizing this vision requires leaders to first engage in meaningful dialog with community members through the lens of “equitable collaboration” (Ishimaru, 2016, 2020) to listen and learn about what constitutes not merely a “free and appropriate” education but a meaningful, humanizing, affirming and liberatory education could look like that reflects community values. 

Housing insecurity is overlooked and undercounted leaving impacted families invisible and unsupported. This crisis will only intensify in the coming years as property ownership consolidates under corporate control and tax certiorari litigation ensures that rising rent extractions do not “trickle down” into school budgets.

School districts must ground their efforts in the needs and experiences of students, families, and communities rather than bureaucracy and professional proceduralism. The living conditions of students and families are directly connected to teaching and learning conditions in schools. Solidarity is required if anyone’s needs are to be met.


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