School and Learning
Rights of Homeless Students
This information last reviewed: 7/29/2014

The McKinney-Vento Education Assistance Improvement Act of 2001 (McKinney-Vento) is a federal law that requires states to make sure that homeless students have equal access to a free public education. New Jersey has laws to ensure that homeless students have the same rights and access to a free public education as non-homeless students.

When is a student considered homeless?

In New Jersey, students are homeless for the purpose of school enrollment when they lack a fixed, regular, and adequate residence.

Students are homeless when they live:

  • In a temporary housing shelter;
  • Temporarily in a hotel or motel;
  • In transitional housing;
  • In a domestic violence shelter;
  • In a shelter for runaway youth;
  • In a vehicle (including a mobile home);
  • In a tent;
  • In a temporary shelter for migrant farm workers on a farm site;
  • Temporarily with relatives or friends because the family lacks a regular or permanent residence of its own; or
  • In a temporary placement while waiting to receive foster care placement.

When enrolling a child in school, parents should tell the district board of education about their housing situation. They should also ask for the district's homeless liaison.

Note: In this article, the word parent means natural or adoptive parents, legal guardians, foster parents, surrogate parents, and people acting in the place of a parent, such as a relative with whom the child lives or someone who is legally responsible for the child's welfare.

What is a homeless liaison?

A school district is required to have a homeless liaison to help homeless students and their families. Some of the things the homeless liaison must do are:

  • Help the homeless student enroll in school;
  • Make sure that the homeless student is enrolled and attending school;
  • Make sure that the homeless student and his or her family get any educational services that they may have a right to receive—such as Head Start, preschool programs, and health care services;
  • Make sure that parents have a chance to participate in their child's education; and
  • Make sure that families and homeless students know that the school district must provide transportation to and from school. They must also help them get transportation.

You may find a directory of school district liaisons on the State Department of Education website.

What school district is responsible for the education of homeless students?

When a student is homeless, the school district where the student's parents last had a fixed, regular, and adequate residence is called the student's district of origin. The district of origin is responsible for the education of the homeless student.

  • This district is the district of origin for as long as the student is homeless;
  • This district will be the district of origin even when a student becomes homeless in between school years; and
  • When a student gets permanent housing during the school year, the district of origin will last to the end of that school year.

The responsibilities of the district of origin are to:

  • Educate the homeless student;
  • Decide where to enroll the homeless child in school;
  • Pay the cost of tuition of a homeless student, even if the student is enrolled in another school district; and
  • Provide transportation for the homeless student, even if the student is enrolled in a different school district.

The chief school administrator in the district of origin must immediately decide where a homeless student should be enrolled. The student's parents must be involved in this decision. The choices are as follows, in this order of priority:

  • The school district the student attended when he or she became homeless, unless this is against the parents' wishes;
  • The school district where the student last attended school, if it is not the same as above; or
  • The school district where the student is temporarily living.

The following things must also be considered:

  • Enrollment in the district of origin is the first choice, unless the parents object;
  • Stability of the child's schooling;
  • Available special educational and/or instructional programs that the child may be eligible to receive, such as bilingual, special education, and gifted and talented programs;
  • Distance of the school from the child's residence;
  • Travel time between the school and the child's residence; and
  • The child's safety traveling back and forth between the school and the child's residence.

When the district of origin makes a decision, it must put certain things in writing. The writing must include a notation that the parents participated. It must also include a statement that the district told the parents they had a right to appeal the decision. Any decision not to enroll the child in the district of origin must be made in writing. Any decision not to enroll the child in the school requested by the parents must be explained in writing. A copy must be given to the student's parents.

Once the school is chosen, the student must be enrolled immediately. If the student does not have the records normally required for enrollment, he or she must still be enrolled.

What happens when a district of origin cannot be determined?

If no district of origin can be determined, the district where the student currently resides must immediately enroll the student in the district, or the district he or she last attended.

What happens when the parents and district do not agree?

If parents and the district do not agree that a student is homeless, either the parents or district must notify the county superintendent. The county superintendent must immediately decide whether the student is homeless. If the parents do not agree with this decision, they can file an appeal with the Commissioner of Education.

If parents and the district do not agree on where to enroll the student, the district must immediately inform the county superintendent. The county superintendent must immediately make an enrollment decision. If the parents do not agree with this decision, they may seek mediation through the Department of Education. Mediation must take place within five school days after it is requested. If mediation fails, then the matter can be appealed to the Commissioner of Education.

Disagreement over where a student should be enrolled does not delay school enrollment. The student must immediately be enrolled into the school where the parents want to enroll the student. The student will remain in that school until the dispute is resolved.

This article appeared in the July-August 2014 issue of Looking Out for Your Legal Rights®.