Understanding Educational Rights for Homeless and Unstably Housed Students

Students who are homeless have educational rights under the McKinney-Vento Act, a federal law that provides funding to support district programs that serve children and youth experiencing homelessness.

The McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act is a federal law that ensures immediate enrollment and educational stability for homeless children and youth. The McKinney-Vento Act also provides federal funding to states for the purpose of supporting district programs that serve homeless students. 

Read our latest blog for a training recap, as provided in partnership with Building Changes, and TeamChild.

If you think a student might be eligible for support under the McKinney-Vento Act, speak with your district liaison! Click here for a list of McKinney Vento Liaisons in Washington State by school district. Here is a list of King County school district McKinney Vento Liaisons.

Many children and families who are eligible for help do not consider themselves homeless.

When are students considered homeless?

The McKinney-Vento Act protects the educational rights of homeless children and youth. The definition of homelessness under the Act includes, but is not limited to, children or youth in these circumstances or settings:

  • Children or youth in shelters or transitional housing.
  • Children or youth living in parks, public spaces, vehicles, abandoned buildings, or other places not meant for people to live.
  • Children or youth sharing housing (doubled up or couch-surfing) due to loss of housing or economic hardship.
  • Children or youth living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camp grounds due to lack of alternative accommodations.
  • Unaccompanied children or youth (i.e. not in the physical custody of their parents or guardians).

Homeless students’ rights include:

  • To remain enrolled in, and be transported to a student’s School of Origin when feasible, even if a student moves across or outside the district. (‘School of Origin’ means the school last attended when permanently housed, or the school in which the child or youth was last enrolled.)
  • To be enrolled immediately (even without medical or school records) in the neighborhood school.
  • To receive FREE breakfast and lunch in schools that serve both.
  • To have barriers addressed so that they can participate in athletics, field trips, and afterschool activities (this could include having certain school fees waived). Parents or guardians should contact school staff for help.
  • To get help with basic school supplies, including uniforms, shoes, textbooks, and notebooks. If a student’s family cannot afford required supplies, parents or guardians should contact school staff for help.
  • To ask for more academic support if a student is struggling with classwork. Parents or guardians should contact school staff for assistance.
  • To use the school district’s Dispute Resolution Process to appeal a school’s decision when there is a disagreement about school selection or enrollment (attending class and participating fully in school activities).


King County Resources for Student Experiencing Homelessness, a one-pager intended for community service providers. Do you have a resource you’d recommend adding? Email tim[at]homelessinfo[dot]org.

Education in the Wake of COVID Resource Guide: This 12-page resource created by TeamChild provides advocates and parents with tools to address tech access, grading, truancy, and much more. 

Supporting School Mental Health in the Context of Racial Violence: This is a two-part learning series intended for students, families, educators and school mental health professionals who are navigating the impact of racial violence on student mental health.

The Education for Homeless Children and Youth program is part of the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). Staff provide trainings for Homeless Education Liaisons and help resolve problems that cannot be resolved within the district. You can also review their Resources page.
(360) 725-6505

The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE) operates the Homeless Education Helpline for parents, shelter staff, and school personnel who need help and information about enrollment, transportation, and access to appropriate educational opportunities. Assistance is available in English and Spanish. Ayuda está disponible en inglés y español.
1-800-308-2145 (ext. 3)

Washington State Governor’s Office of the Education Ombuds (OEO) is a free, confidential resource for students and families. Staff can help resolve complaints, disputes, and problems between families and public schools or districts in matters that affect student learning. Interpretation available. Interpretación disponible.
Toll-free: (866) 297-2597

Building Changes Education Team improves housing stability and academic outcomes for the more than 40,000 students in our state who experience homelessness. Find student homelessness data, policy analysis, promising practices, and a “Know Your Rights” toolkit for students experiencing homelessness.