California is under-counting homeless K-12 students — and that’s hurting them, audit says

California’s homeless K-12 students are being under-counted by several school districts, and also being neglected by the state Department of Education, according to a newly released report.

The report comes from the California State Auditor’s Office, which reviewed the education department, as well as five school districts and one charter school, at the Legislature’s request.

“We determined that the (local districts) we reviewed could do more to identify and support these youth, and that (the education department) has provided inadequate oversight of the state’s homeless education program,” wrote California State Auditor Elaine Howle in a public letter.

In the 2017-18 academic year, there were 4.3 million economically disadvantaged K-12 students in California, including 274,714 who were homeless, according to education department data.

The audit cited homelessness experts who say that homeless students make up an estimated 5 to 10 percent of all economically disadvantaged youths, defined as students who qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Those students often fail when they don’t get help, in the form of services such as tutoring, transportation, school supplies, food or counseling, according to state data cited by the audit. They are less likely to graduate from high school and more likely to experience chronic absenteeism and suspension.

A group of Democratic lawmakers pledged to act on Howle’s findings.

“Student homelessness is not an issue that will simply go away if we pretend it isn’t happening,” said Assemblyman David Chiu, D-San Francisco, in a news release

Failure at the school district level

The auditor’s office reviewed one charter school, Birmingham Community Charter High School in Los Angeles, and five school districts: Greenfield Union School District in Bakersfield; Gridley Unified School District; Norwalk-La Mirada Unified School District; San Bernardino City Unified School District; and Vallejo City Unified School District.

The audit found that most of the school districts were under-counting the number of homeless students.

Of the six local school districts surveyed, four had identified just 3 percent, or fewer, of their economically disadvantaged students as homeless.

“When (local districts) fail to identify these youth, they cannot provide them with much‑needed services,” the report said.

The audit found that none of the districts surveyed had sufficiently trained staff to recognize homeless students.

“This training would help to ensure that the staff are aware of important information, such as the definition of a youth experiencing homelessness and the key indicators to look for, that would help them identify the youth needing services,” according to the report.

In addition, just one of the local districts, San Bernadino, had disseminated information relating to homeless education programs in public places, as required by state and federal law.

Norwalk-La Mirada had shared the information “several years ago at the onset of its homeless education program,” while the other for districts were unaware of their legal obligation to do so, the report said.

The audit found that two of the local districts also had failed to distribute a housing questionnaire to students.

“By using a housing questionnaire at least annually to determine the housing situation of each enrolled student, (local districts) could better identify youth who are currently experiencing homelessness,” the report said.

Failure at the state level

The state bears partial responsibility for the failures of the local districts, the audit said.

Though federal law requires the education department to monitor the activities of school districts to ensure they’re providing services to homeless students, the audit found that the state agency monitors just a tiny fraction of the state’s school districts and charter schools.

The department monitors homeless services at just 20 of California’s nearly 2,300 local school districts and charter schools in California, the audit said.

“Considering the severity of homelessness in California, (the education department)‘s review of so few (local districts) is concerning,” the report said.

The report said that the education department could use the data it collects from school districts to identify those with fewer than 5 percent of economically disadvantaged students who are homeless and provide technical assistance.

“Identifying those (local districts) that require additional guidance is especially important because the guidance (the education department) currently provides is inadequate,” the report said.

Documents on the education department website, such as a housing questionnaire and training modules for school staff, do not contain “key best practices,” the report found, while language in the sample questionnaire “could hinder (local districts) in identifying youth entitled to receive services that could help improve their academic success.”

The education department previously asserted that it was a lack of resources that prevented the department from sufficiently overseeing the school districts’ homeless education programs, the report said.

Though California has more school districts than any other state, the education department has just 3.5 full-time equivalent positions that work with them on homelessness programs, according to the audit report. That’s nearly 650 local districts for each staff member.

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Andrew Sheeler covers California’s unique political climate for the Sacramento Bee. He has covered crime and politics from Interior Alaska to North Dakota’s oil patch to the rugged coast of southern Oregon. He attended the University of Alaska Fairbanks.