State official says program for homeless needs bigger slice of the pie

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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When there's homework but no home: Homeless portion of county's student body is growing.

Melinda Dyer is blunt in her assessment of the future of programs dedicated to homeless students.

"Over time, McKinney-Vento has been underfunded," said Dyer, the state's program supervisor for homeless education. "And I don't see that changing."

The McKinney-Vento Act requires states to ensure students have equal access to education.

This year, the state received $950,000 from the federal government's McKinney-Vento grant. The state's Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction takes a 25 percent cut off the top. The rest is passed down to qualifying school districts.

Homeless liaisons say it's too little to make a dent in what they consider to be an unfunded mandate.

Money passed on to Washington is a small piece of the $65 million the federal government authorized for homeless education in 2012.

At a November meeting of the state House Education Committee, Dyer said it's up to the federal government to bolster what resources are available.

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has taken up the challenge. She co-authored a bill, the Children and Youth Without Homes Act, to boost the level of federal spending.

A longtime proponent of homeless education programs, Murray said she was confident the legislation would pass out of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, on which she sits.

"We need a considerable effort at the federal level," she said. "These homeless kids are the easy ones to ignore. They don't have parents coming into the district advocating for them."

She said school districts would be "lost" without the support of the federal government.

But Dyer and other state officials say they're not holding out hope the legislation will succeed.

Only 11 percent of Senate bills passed out of committee between 2011 and 2013.

"I don't expect additional funds coming through the federal government," Dyer said.