McKinney-Vento Act

We’re still talking about “separate but equal” education?

Separate but Equal Schooling Of Evacuees Provokes Debate
By Daniel Golden
Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal September 14, 2005

The 372,000 schoolchildren displaced by Hurricane Katrina are stirring an old debate about whether separate education can really be equal.

A number of states, including Utah and Texas, want to teach some of the dispersed Gulf Coast students in shelters instead of in local public schools, a stance supported by the Bush administration and some private education providers. But advocates for homeless families and civil rights oppose that approach.

At the center of the dispute is whether the McKinney-Vento Act, a landmark federal law banning educational segregation of homeless children, should apply to the evacuees. In addition, because many of the stranded students are black, holding classes for them at military bases, convention centers or other emergency housing sites could run afoul of racial desegregation plans still operating in some school districts.

Separate education for the evacuees is “unconscionable,” says Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. “Many states have worked extremely hard to comply with the law and give these kids a regular school experience. The federal Department of Education is seeking to undermine the law at a time when it is most needed.”

But officials of some states contend that separate classes would be less disruptive to both school districts and displaced families. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is expected to ask Congress soon for authority to waive McKinney-Vento and other key education legislation, such as the 2001 No Child Left Behind law, which holds districts and schools accountable for test scores of students in each racial group. Without a waiver, the penalty for violating McKinney-Vento is to deny states the funding they receive under the act for homeless education. Although the act was enacted in 1987, the desegregation requirement was adopted in 1994 and strengthened in 2001.

Susan Aspey, an Education Department spokeswoman, said that “we still don’t know” how broad a waiver the secretary will seek and that the secretary plans to be “prudent” in exercising the waiver authority. She also said the department doesn’t know how many children have re-enrolled in public schools, how many are being educated separately and how many are awaiting placement. Since it’s unclear how long the children will be displaced, she added, the secretary won’t be granting waivers “in perpetuity.”

Businesses from charter schools to distance-education providers are already pressing for permission to teach the homeless in shelters and other makeshift housing, hoping to gain broader acceptance for their approaches to education. Mark Thimmig, chief executive of White Hat Ventures LLC, which educates nearly 5,000 students in Pennsylvania and Ohio via the Internet, said last week that his company would be eager to educate displaced students in the Astrodome.

After nearly 600 evacuees landed at Camp Williams, a National Guard training center in Utah, officials at the neighboring Jordan school district were ready to bus the children to school. The district, which is 1% black, has more than 75,000 students, including 1,800 homeless pupils.

But Pamela Atkinson, a special consultant to Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr., had other ideas. The displaced families had experienced “so much trauma, anxiety and separation” that the parents “wanted their children close by,” said Ms. Atkinson. “Since we had classrooms at Camp Williams, it made more sense to keep them there.”

She contacted Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, who then asked Secretary Spellings to seek to waive McKinney-Vento. “These displaced and homeless children are not the typical homeless children,” Sen. Hatch wrote. “Nearly all of them are with their families. It is important to keep families together as the Katrina victims receive aid and support.” The secretary had already made a verbal commitment to Sen. Hatch that she would not enforce McKinney-Vento, according to the letter.

Now, while many families have moved off Camp Williams, about 20 displaced children in kindergarten through 12th grade are studying art, reading and other subjects in classrooms on the base. The state brought in two black educators to advise district teachers on “cultural sensitivity,” Ms. Atkinson said. “As long as there’s one child at Camp Williams, we will continue to hold that school.”

Texas Education Commissioner Shirley Neeley, noting that 25,000 evacuees are housed at a closed Air Force base in San Antonio, asked the federal Education Department last week for “flexibility” to serve students “at facilities where they are housed, or otherwise separate from Texas residents during the 2005-2006 school year.” U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican, introduced legislation Monday that would grant Secretary Spellings authority to waive McKinney-Vento.

Such proposals are arousing consternation among advocates for the homeless, who fear that nearly two decades of gains in public-school enrollment for homeless children will be wiped out. They note that the act, which also requires school systems to enroll homeless children even without documentation such as health and residency records and to employ liaisons to the homeless, was vital to the swift, open-armed response of school districts to the student influx in the hurricane’s aftermath. Also, they say, thousands of storm-battered children have already enrolled in public schools across the country without ill effects.

Gary Orfield, director of a Harvard University project that monitors school integration, said that segregating a predominantly black group of evacuees could raise “constitutional questions of racial discrimination.” He also said that because many of them may be traumatized, have learning deficits, or come from failing schools, it would be “terrifically difficult” to teach a separate class of the displaced students, and that placing them in middle-class schools and communities would benefit them educationally.

William L. Taylor, chairman of the Citizen’s Commission on Civil Rights, said the administration’s plans to ease McKinney-Vento and No Child Left Behind could leave the displaced students warehoused and forgotten. “We need some focus on the needs of the children, and not go around waiving a lot of regulations without deciding whether there’s a need,” Mr. Taylor said.

Not all states are seeking waivers. Mississippi officials turned down a proposal from a Navy base to hold classes there. Nikisha Ware, a Mississippi Department of Education official, said the law had helped evacuees to enroll in schools without red tape. “If there were no McKinney-Vento,” she said, the hurricane “would have created it.”

Write to Daniel Golden at

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