Number of homeless students is soaring

The Wichita school district saw its number of homeless students jump by 46 percent last school year.
The Wichita school district saw its number of homeless students jump by 46 percent last school year.

Though the Wichita school district has about 10 percent of the state’s public school students, it has nearly a quarter of the state’s homeless students. And the number of those students in USD 259 and the state has been soaring.

Meanwhile, Gov. Sam Brownback and GOP legislative leaders are hoping to circumvent a court order to increase state funding for K-12 schools.

A state report shows that 10,378 public school students in Kansas were homeless sometime during the 2013-14 school year. That’s 1,048, or 11 percent, more than the previous school year.

Much of that increase came from the Wichita school district, which saw its number of homeless students jump by 755, or 46 percent, last school year – from 1,637 to 2,392 students.

Wichita also keeps track of the younger siblings of homeless students who are not yet in school. Counting those children, Wichita’s homeless total last May was about 2,700.

Homelessness tends to be more of an urban than a rural problem, said Tate Toedman, child homelessness program coordinator for the Kansas State Department of Education. The cost of living often is higher in cities than small towns, and some people move to cities to look for work but don’t find it. The economic downturn also hit Wichita harder than most Kansas communities, and its recovery has been slower.

But there were homeless students last school year in more than half of the state’s 286 school districts, including some wealthier suburban districts. Among area districts, Derby had 60 homeless students; Haysville, 210; Valley Center, 50; Mulvane, 25; Goddard, 62; Maize, 17; and Andover, 33.

Homeless children, which include those living with other families, face many obstacles that can affect their educational success. They tend to be emotionally unsettled, and many are hungry and may lack adequate clothing.

Dedicated teachers try to give these students attention and emotional support. Many teachers and school social workers also provide other assistance, such as winter coats or eyeglasses – often paid for out of their own pockets.

School districts start their homeless counts from zero at the beginning of each school year. As of Monday – halfway through the school year – USD 259 had counted 1,742 homeless students, plus another 211 younger children, for a total of 1,953. At this time last year, the district had identified about 1,500 students, according to Cynthia Martinez, the district’s homeless education liaison.

A three-judge panel ruled last week that the state is underfunding public schools by at least $500 million – which should mean that help will soon be on its way to school districts working with homeless children. But Brownback and other state leaders are balking at the ruling.

While they are trying to avoid their constitutional responsibility to suitably finance education, Kansas schoolchildren are wondering where they will sleep tonight.

For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee