Skip to main content

John Whitehead's Commentary

Separate but Unequal: Educating Homeless Children in America

John Whitehead
In 1954, in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, the Supreme Court finally abandoned the idea that segregated public schools could co-exist as "separate but equal" institutions. Today, that notion seems so antiquated that we marvel it was ever seriously considered -- not to mention adopted -- as the law of the land for half a century. But today's homeless children are experiencing the same type of discrimination.

A new study from the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty finds that many public
schools are violating federal laws that guarantee homeless children equal access to education. In the
first comprehensive look at the problem, the NLCHP discovered that traditional public schools have fumbled the task of educating one million homeless children in America.

It's not that schools don't know about the problem. There's a federal law in place guaranteeing homeless children access to public schools and providing federal grants to help states deal with their unique needs. Passed in 1987, the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act gave out almost $30 million last year to all 50 states. President Clinton has proposed a couple of million more for this year's budget.

These efforts have seen some substantial improvement. The U.S. Department of Education estimated that almost 90 percent of homeless children were enrolled in school in 1997, compared to only 50 percent in 1990.

These children, however, still face significant hurdles, including transportation, residency requirements and access to early childhood development programs.

Part of the problem is lack of funding. Thirty million dollars sounds like a lot of money -- until you
consider that all 50 states have to share it and some school districts in those states only get slivers of the pie, assuming they get anything at all. One study found that only 4 percent of school districts were receiving McKinney Act funding. That's one reason the NLCHP hopes Congress will eventually boost annual funding to $50 million.

But not everything costs money, says NLCHP lawyer Sarah McCarthy. "Extra money would help compliance," she notes. "But there are things that states can do for free, like making sure that homeless children have access to their schools."
This access problem is what has led to the separate and unequal situation. Special schools have sprung up around the country specifically to serve homeless children. Often, however, they're merely one room in a homeless shelter. Curriculum in these shelter schools is often sub-par, students of all ages are lumped together and teacher training can be inadequate.

But even if the facilities are just as good as the local public schools--and McCarthy says they sometimes are -- there remains the simple fact that these schools are separate. That leads to even further isolation among homeless children, who already feel stigmatized due to their transient situations.

"Our position," says McCarthy, "is that homeless children should be in public schools and have a right to be in public schools."

The fact that homeless children are denied access is clearly a violation of the McKinney Act. But more
importantly, it's a violation of these students' constitutional rights.

Consider these words from the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education: "To separate [these children] from others of similar age and qualification simply because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely ever to be undone."

Now simply replace the word "race" with the word "homelessness." It quickly becomes apparent that
abandoning homeless children to back-room schools in shelters is beyond inadequate. It is a fundamental violation of the American ideals of freedom and opportunity.

The tragic irony of this issue is that not properly educating homeless children ensures that the cycle
will not be broken. Without adequate schooling, homeless children are more likely to grow up to be homeless adults, give birth to homeless children, and start the process all over again.

Homeless children are already more likely than their peers to suffer emotional problems and learning disabilities. Public schools, then, have a grave responsibility--one they should not treat lightly
or shirk.

In the end, more money may help. But more respect for human dignity is the real solution.

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People  (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at Whitehead can be contacted at

Publication Guidelines / Reprint Permission

John W. Whitehead’s weekly commentaries are available for publication to newspapers and web publications at no charge. Please contact to obtain reprint permission.